When I learned that police-officers-in-uniform had been banned from marching in the 2018 annual gay parade next year by the (LGBT+) Vancouver Pride Society, my immediate response to this seemingly ludicrous diktat was to invoke the ludic. Let’s play it for laughs, I figured.
(For the news, see Craig Takeuchi, “Vancouver Pride Society makes decision on police participation in 2018 parade,” Georgia Straight, Nov. 29, 2017. Glossary: “LGBT+” stands for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans” and I’ve added a plus sign for any additional categories. The current fashion is to append “Q” and “2” or “2S” to the list, referring to “Queer” and the aboriginal designation, “2 Spirit”. You’re not required to memorize any of this material. Actually, I often still confuse LGBT with bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches, BLT.)
My first playful thought was about the many members-in-good-standing of the gay community who are uniform-wearing enthusiasts. Did the decision to dump the police (uniform) mean that the Pride organizers were also planning to ban uniform fetishists who wore Vancouver Police Department garb from marching in the parade? If not, what’s to prevent march participants from “dressing up” in VPD “costumes,” thus circumventing the political decision of Pride organizers? Soon, I was envisaging squadrons of VPD-dressed marchers thumping down Denman street in Vancouver, past the “No Frills” mall supermarket in my old neighbourhood. It could even turn into a kind of game. Guess who is merely parading in a VPD costume, and who’s a real VPD police officer now required to wear “civvies”? And is a VPD cop, now banned from wearing his or her or their uniform, allowed to appear in “drag”? The killjoy possibilities are endless.
Okay, that’s enough giddiness to get us to the semi-serious stuff and to try and provide some demystifying information for citizens not party to the inside-baseball rituals of the gay world. First, I should confess that I’m not a big fan of the Pride parade and tend to regard it these days as simply an event on the local civic Tourist Bureau’s calendar of commercial-ethnic spectacles. On the other hand, I certainly don’t have anything against this 40-or-so-year-old event and I’m even willing to devote my share of spiritual energy to hoping that it doesn’t rain on that Sunday in August when the parade wends its way through Vancouver’s downtown West End peninsula. Naturally, I tend to take more seriously Pride parades in places in the world where the authorities don’t want them, such as Moscow, Warsaw, Tehran, Istanbul and other benighted urban centers. In those places, gay populations are sizeable but explicitly oppressed, and defending the right of those proto-communities to publicly march is of more urgent import than West Coast walks in the sun.
In almost-post-gay places like Vancouver, the parade is mostly fun and games (and money), though there’s often a thin veneer of gay politics to lend the parade some ideological respectability. Mainly, though, it’s entertainment. You can even take the kids.
Historically, in Vancouver and elsewhere, prior to Pride parades, which began in the early 1980s, there were “Gay Pride” events throughout the 1970s – demos, protests, marches, court cases, fundraisers, Gay Pride “weeks” and days and whatnot. At some point, once the “official” Pride marches were underway, I remember mentally registering, without paying too much attention to it, that Gay Pride had become just plain Pride. I noticed that the word “gay” had been dropped as part of a public relations strategy to “normalize” homosexuality. And, in a way, it made sense: the militant, politicized period of gay activism, having achieved many of its goals, gave way to an intentionally depoliticized Mardi Gras style “festival” and celebration, one that would eventually lead to 21st century “same-sex marriage.”
But back in the mid-1980s, we were about to be caught up in an apocalyptic AIDS epidemic that ran more than a decade before anti-retroviral drugs became available to turn a death sentence into a “manageable” chronic condition. During that period, the Pride parade retained an important existential function – it was a manifestation of the gay community simply being, even as we personally grieved for friends and strangers who had died. The politics of the parade shifted to a focus on health issues and the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS.
Parallel to all of these developments, members of the gay community, including a lot of Pride march organizers, put in many patient hours working with the police. I remember my old pal, the late Jim Deva, one of the founders of Little Sister’s Bookstore, persistently trying to get the police to take gay bashing seriously, and he, along with others, attempted to persuade the force to adopt a cooperative rather than adversarial relationship to the gay community, and even to endorse that community by participating in its annual parade. Efforts toward police-gay liaison wasn’t just a one-way street; there were plenty of police and civic officials who thought it was a good idea, too. As a result of all this, the police – in uniform – began marching in the Pride parade more than twenty years ago. In addition to that being an institutional endorsement of the gay community, it was also an opportunity for LGBT members of the force to come out of the cop-shop closet.
The Pride parade itself is generally taken as emblematic of the spirit of inclusiveness, and the presence of the police in the parade (and not merely guarding it from outside) is, as I’ve noted, part of a long history to get the police onside. The inclusiveness is quite broad – within the LGBT community itself it ranges from classic drag queens to the aforementioned uniform (and non-uniform) fetishists clanking around in everything from chain-mail to birthday suits – and don’t forget the famous Dykes on Bikes, revving their motorcycles at appropriate moments. The model of diversity that the Pride parade subscribes to is meant to include people of colour, all imaginable genders, ethnic groups, the differently abled-and-aged, parents of LGBTs and LGBT parents, and sundry varieties of human types and activities. It excludes, as far as I can tell, only advocates of sex with children, and homophobic right-wing political extremists (such as Nazis, white nationalists, and other proto-fascists). Given the public character of the parade, and the vast number of participants and spectators that it attracts (numbering in the hundreds of thousands), the presence of the police (along with other contingents of civic “first responders”) contributes to combatting anti-homosexual prejudice.
Finally, gay community support for police participation reflects, however implicitly, a philosophical view of both the police and society. The gay community views itself as citizens in a liberal democratic political state of which it largely approves. The police, then, tend to be seen as “our” police, and the policies the police department adopts are expected to be reflective of the popular will, including that of the gay community.
The unpleasant past in which the constabulary arbitrarily arrested and otherwise mistreated homosexuals is today regarded as nearly bygone days. Just in the last month, Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, delivered a public apology in Parliament to homosexuals persecuted in the past, especially those who served in the military and government (and the apology included a compensation package).
It was Justin’s father, Pierre, also a PM, who famously declared that “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation” as he decriminalized homosexuality in 1969. So, unlike in authoritarian anti-gay states, the police in Canada are not seen as an oppressive “they” by the gay community. The perhaps more politically sophisticated can sneer at this placid vision of a liberal democratic, bourgeois-capitalist state, but in a world that has a limited amount of liberal democracy, there may be good reasons for appreciating it. In any case, that’s the way the overwhelming majority of the gay community tends to see things currently. Of course, this perspective is not as pollyanna-ish as its more militant opponents claim. Liberal democrats (in all their varieties and shades on the spectrum) see lots of problems in society, some of them involving the police, and call for action to reform policies, mitigate inequalities, and solve problems.
That, in fact, is how the present controversy about whether the police should or shouldn’t participate in Pride arose. This particular decision is the result of the Pride parade’s attempt to include and support Canadian branches of Black Lives Matter (BLM). For those who don’t follow the news, BLM is a U.S.-founded organization that emerged in response to the unjustified killings of mainly unarmed black young people by the police, and by the disproportionate rate of incarceration of black people in U.S. prisons. The killings occurred in such numbers and with such regularity that it was impossible not to see these acts as a systematic reflection of widespread police attitudes and policies, particularly in the U.S. Somewhat similar complaints – referring to generally less violent incidents (such as police arbitrarily stopping black citizens on the streets and in their cars) – were reported in Canada, by Canadian branches of BLM.
In an attempt at solidarity with BLM – what’s known in political circles these days as “intersectionality” partnering – the Toronto Pride parade a couple of years ago invited BLM to be featured participants in the Toronto civic shindig. What Toronto Pride organizers hadn’t anticipated was that BLM (which of course has LGBT+ members) would hold a sit-down protest in the middle of the parade, complete with a list of demands to the gay community (including one about excluding uniformed police) that Pride officials were apparently supposed to respond to immediately.
I’ll skip the editorializing about the propriety of “hi-jacking” the Pride parade in this way, and simply point out that BLM insists that Pride fully adopt BLM’s oppositional view of the police. When Vancouver organizers, for example, only partially agreed to BLM demands last August by limiting rather than banning the uniformed police contingent, BLM displayed its displeasure by holding its own separate “pride” parade, and declined to participate in the general Pride festivities.
A lot of the LGBT+ community not only understands the arguments and experiences of BLM (both within society in general as well as specifically within the gay community) but also feels considerable solidarity with BLM. Again, I probably should note a minor philosophical dispute about whether or not “outsiders” can understand the views and experiences of groups of which they’re not members. It’s become fashionable in the new discourse of outrage, or “identity politics,” or whatever you want to call it, that only “authentic” members of a group or category can really understand that group’s experiences. While there’s an obvious grain of half-truth to that argument, one of the features of discourse ever since the Enlightenment is that our ability to reason allows us to at least appreciate and understand something of the experience of others.
Naturally, sympathy, identification, and solidarity doesn’t necessarily imply agreement. In this instance, the notion that the Pride Parade should adopt the BLM perspective on the police simply isn’t widely shared within the LGBT community, nor does it reflect the LGBT community’s experience with the police in Vancouver. However, disagreeing with BLM on political grounds doesn’t imply lack of understanding and or absence of sympathy
When the Vancouver Pride Society announced its decision about the uniformed police, it anticipated pushback from LGBT+ people, and on its Pride Society website (www.vancouverpride.ca) published a FAQ sheet to explain its decision. Among other things, it assured the community that it had engaged in broad consultation with its constituents, that it had discovered that many people and groups were made “uncomfortable” by the presence of uniformed police, and that anyway, it wasn’t the police that were being banned, just their uniforms.
To take the last point first, here’s an example of specious reasoning – an idea that isn’t confined to Pride Society organizers. Unsurprisingly, the Pride police ban has kicked off the usual spate of social media “conversation.” The version I followed turned up in a Facebook group called “Vancouver Pride Legacy.” On the uniform question, one FB friend of mine, Michael V. Smith, a Canadian writer (My Body Is Yours, 2015), performance artist (aka “Miss Cookie”), and Creative Writing professor at UBC Okanagan in Kelowna, argues, with a hint of annoyance at the mental density of the rest of us, “Can we please note that nobody turfed the police. They turfed the uniforms. Saying otherwise is obfuscation and misses the point entirely.”
Uh, no. In sophisticated inter-disciplinary faculties such as Creative and Critical Studies, where one can find Prof. Smith professing, don’t they still teach elementary theoretical notions like metonymy? Metonymy “is a figure of speech in which a thing or concept is referred to by the name of something closely associated with that thing or concept.” (Cf., Wikipedia, “Metonymy.”) When it comes to institutions like the police, the uniform really does stand for the person wearing it.
So, no, it’s not “obfuscation.” The obfuscation that Smith cites actually occurs when someone tries to convince you with a bafflegab claim that it’s not the police that are being banned, just their uniforms. Would the circus make the clowns take off their clown costumes and bulbous red noses, and then insist that the clowns are perfectly welcome im the Big Tent, but not their costumes? Now that I think of it, I think I preferred Prof. Smith in his salad days when he performed in drag as Miss Cookie and hostessed “Skank Nights” in the smoky back bar of Vancouver’s Dufferin pub. I don’t remember protesters demanding that Miss Cookie give up his transvestite “uniform” as a means of fighting misogyny in Canadian society.
But of course, there’s a more serious argument to be had. In describing the research that led the Pride Society to its police ban decision, the society uses the unfortunately tepid term “uncomfortable” to describe the reaction of some Pride participants to the presence of uniformed police, as if we were talking about some minor irritation of décor or cuisine. Here’s where Prof. Smith provides a helpful whiff of campus Social Justice Warrior (SJW) rhetoric to get to the gravity of the issue.
“We aren’t doing our jobs if we aren’t supporting the critiques of the BLM movement,” Smith says. “Any discussion that ignores their complaints is a distraction, and complicit… Have you asked a black man what relationship he has to a police uniform? How it makes him feel?” Smith asks. “Have you asked a black man what experience his family has had with uniformed police?” Smith says he’s puzzled “that we’re busy judging Black Lives Matter rather than listening.” And soon it’s on to slightly more rhetorical questions: “How much privilege does it take to not recognize that we white boys don’t know better…?” Whoops, apparently most disagreement with the BLM perspective is a result of “white privilege,” and the failure to take BLM complaints seriously makes “we white boys… complicit.”
There’s a lot to agree with in Smith’s argument above – race inequality, particularly in the U.S. (but in Canada, too), is the deepest human stain in American history – but one is not required to agree with everything a potential ally proposes (especially tactics) out of fraternal feeling and solidarity. So, pace Smith, it may be the case that BLM is being “listened to,” not “being judged”; that its complaints are not being “ignored,” and that some black men have indeed been asked what it feels like to be systemically discriminated against; but nonetheless, most of the rest of us still don’t agree that kicking the police out of Vancouver’s Pride parade is the solution to racial justice issues. Of course, in an era of outrage discourse, it may be hard to believe that anyone can disagree with anyone else on the basis of finding, in this case, certain ideological and tactical ideas unpersuasive. There must be more sinister motives – we have to sneer at “white boys” and their undeserved “privilege.”
Finally, the Pride Society assures us that there’s been broad consultation with the community, and it details its consultative research at length on its website. Indeed, it was found that some members of some groups described as “marginalized,” felt themselves to be “uncomfortable” with an aspect of the parade, namely, the presence of uniformed police. But it’s not as clear that the Pride society consulted with a broader sampling of its constituency. Once the Vancouver police ban was announced and the predictable blowback manifested itself, the media took due notice. It discovered that “pioneer” gay activists saw the move as a “shoot-yourself-in-the-foot” political mistake, and it began counting noses. (cf., Douglas Todd, “Pioneer LGBTQ activists decry Pride parade’s ban on uniformed police,” Vancouver Sun, Dec. 5, 2017, and Stephanie Ip, “Daily Poll: Do you support Vancouver Pride’s decision to ban uniformed police?”, Vancouver Sun, Dec. 5, 2017.)
In addition to disproportionately angry responses on the Pride Society’s own website, the Georgia Straight and the Vancouver Sun newspapers both conducted (admittedly “unscientific”) polls among their readers. Assuming that most of the respondents are GBLT+-identified people, both polls found that somewhere between 85-90 per cent of respondents thought that the decision to ban uniformed police was a mistake.
The Sun poll was noteworthy in that it drew over 4,000 responses, and that the outcome was unambiguous. Indeed, you could probably find more parade participants objecting to commercial sponsors than protesting the police presence. Of course, even an overwhelming majority of 85 per cent doesn’t necessarily make the majority politically or morally right. It’s simply a reflection of what most people think.
But those polling numbers are backed up by arguments about why banning the police is the wrong thing to do, both morally and politically. In the gay community, the debate over the police barely rises to the level of a controversy. Instead, the Pride Society’s move is seen as little more than the imposition of a political decision (or, worse, a merely “politically correct” decision) on a community that isn’t the least bit proud of the Pride Society’s arbitrary determinations.