Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
Stonewall’s anniversary has cops and LGBTQ activists revisiting their fraught history—and debating if police belong at celebrations of gay and trans rights.
To honor Pride Month, the San Francisco Police Department redecorated one of its patrol cars, affixing “Pride,” “Equality,” and “Peace” stickers on one of its doors. The spokes of its wheels are ribboned with rainbow. “Policing With Pride,” the car declares.
SFPD is also the first department in the country to encourage its officers to wear “Pride Patches” on the job this month, and while marching in the San Francisco Pride Festival.
“We want to encourage positive conversations with LGBTQ communities and the Pride Patch symbolizes our inclusiveness,” SFPD wrote on Facebook.
But the link between Pride and policing has always been fraught, and police efforts to extend an olive branch in Pride Month are often viewed with distrust. Today’s Pride parades grew from the Stonewall riots, which were sparked after New York police raided a gay bar 50 years ago this weekend. And while police departments may now show overt support for the LGBTQ community each June, there’s a pervasive feeling among some that celebrating queerness is incompatible with marching alongside cops.
That feeling is reflected in the theme for this year’s San Francisco Pride Parade: “Generations of Resistance.” That’s a reference not just to Stonewall, but also the pivotal Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco, which broke out 53 years ago after police tried to arrest a transgender woman for “female impersonation,” and she flung coffee to fend them off.
While there’s been progress in the legal and social acceptance of gay rights since then, many in the LGBTQ community want Pride to remain a space that’s safe, subversive, and inclusive. To many, that also means police-free.
“Pride began as a protest, and it’s turned into a parade,” said Malkia Devich Cyril, the executive director of MediaJustice and an activist based in Oakland. “I think what’s happening now is simply a return to its roots.”
The debate over whether to allow police officers to march in Pride parades isn’t new: In 2016, Toronto Black Lives Matter staged a protest during Pride to demand, in part, that police floats and booths be removed from the parade. Uniformed cops have been banned from marching ever since, a decision reaffirmed in a vote by Pride organizers this year. In San Francisco, the memory of Compton’s Cafeteria Riot has fueled Gay Shame, an activist group made up mostly of trans people of color, who have long peppered the city with stickers that say “Kick cops and corporations out of pride.”
Earlier this month in Nashville, a campaign called No Pride in Police aimed to stop police from setting up a booth during Pride weekend. Police agreed to march wearing t-shirts instead of uniforms, and ultimately no booth was set up—though Pride organizers said the police had not signed up for a permit in time, one organizer told CityLab they saw it as a sign that police were cowed by activists’ demands. Minneapolis police officers decided not to march, either.
The significance of this year’s anniversary has not been lost on police departments. After decades of pressure from LGBTQ activists, New York City Police Department Commissioner James P. O’Neill issued a handwritten apology this month for the NYPD’s involvement in Stonewall, saying the violence was “wrong,” “discriminatory, and oppressive.”
Nashville police also acknowledged the work they still need to do to build trust. “This profession historically has had some not so good people working in it,” MNPD Sergeant Catie Poole told the Tennessean. “We’re trying to reach out that olive branch and mend the bridges that have been broken or nonexistent in the past.”
But Devich Cyril, the activist in Oakland, said police getting involved in Pride is little more than marketing, and can’t erase the violence and discrimination that continue. “The only thing that would increase trust between cops and communities of color and queer people is if officers stop killing us; stop brutalizing us; and stop getting away with it,” they said.
That’s a belief driving much of this year’s organizing: That the Stonewall violence LGBTQ people are memorializing isn’t far removed from the present reality. In October, Nashville police officers were reprimanded for mocking a trans woman on social media, according to the Tennessean. In Sacramento, where calls to ban police from a Pride weekend at the beginning of the month were not heeded, activists point to the recent arrest of a black trans woman as evidence that more must be done. After protesting the killing of an unarmed black man, she was put in the male section of the county jail, and searched by men.
There are practical reasons for the police presence at Pride events, amid fears that parades could become sites of violence. Indeed, it was a 2016 shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that prompted a police presence at Toronto Pride—which in turn spurred Toronto Black Lives Matter’s eventual backlash.
Though Nashville’s No Pride in Police group asked police not to patrol inside the Pride parade, they were open to them patrolling outside, and welcomed off-duty cops to attend. “[W]e are not preventing any individuals from participating in Pride,” reads a statement from Nashville’s No Pride in Police. “[I]t’s about the institution of policing.”
Some LGBTQ police officers argue that it’s by marching in uniform that they’re able to reconcile, and celebrate, both parts of their identities. “When I first came in [to the force in 1995], a lot of people were not out; a lot of people hid their sexuality because of fear,” said Commander Teresa Ewins, a gay officer for SFPD. “And now we’re in 2019, and I have new recruits … come up and completely out themselves. It’s a different time right now.”
Pride, she says, offers an opportunity to remind the community that the police force has gotten more diverse. “People don’t understand that you may be actually speaking to a member of the department that’s LGBT when we respond to your call for help,” said Ewins. “Our history does not define who we are today. We have changed and we have improved and we listen and we are part of the community now.”
Displaying that diversity is part of the strategy advocated in President Barack Obama’s 21st Century Policing pillars, and aligns with the current Department of Justice recommendations for community-oriented policing, Ewins notes.
“A lot of kids that have run away from home [because they’re LGBT] that see us … in uniform marching together in celebration of being LGBT, what does that say to them?” she said. “That actually tells them that they can be anything that they want.”
In New York this weekend, both sides of this tension will be on full display. The Gay Officers Action League, a New York City-based LGBTQ officer organization founded in 1982, will hold an inaugural Community Healing Street Festival, where officers will gather in Chelsea to honor Stonewall and offer “an olive branch to the LGBTQIA+ community.”
Meanwhile, the Reclaim Pride Coalition has organized an alternative Pride in New York City, called the Queer Liberation March. On Sunday, the same day as the official Pride Parade, the group will retrace the steps of the original Liberation Day March of 1970, marching together from Christopher Street, where the Stonewall Inn still stands, to Central Park’s Great Lawn. Both corporations and cops will be banned from participating.
“I understand how big Pride has gotten,” said Francesca B., a member of New York City’s Reclaim Pride Coalition and queer activist who declined to give her last name. “But you can have a meaningful, substantive day around our rights, celebrating how far we’ve come—but also talking about how much we have to do.”