This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the 1969 New York City uprising that was a historic turning point for the LGBTQ rights movement in the United States. The Stonewall riots were the first Pride – not a parade – but a rebellion against the societal persecution and police brutality of LGBTQ people.
In 1969, in large and small cities across the country, hidden and sometimes illegal gay bars were both the centers of gay life and the targets of routine police raids where LGBTQ folks were intimidated, harassed, clubbed, beaten and jailed. Unjust policies that criminalized LGBTQ people were carried out by police.
The civil servants who were being paid to protect people were often the biggest threat to the safety of the LGBTQ community.
The riots began at the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City during a “routine” police raid. Marsha P. Johnson, a Black transgender activist is widely credited with igniting the rebellion by throwing a shot glass at a window (or a brick, the history is piecemeal) as officers took patrons into the back of the club to “check their sex”.
Among that vanguard of activists was also Stormé DeLarverie, a Black biracial butch lesbian and drag king, who punched a cop as she was being arrested and screamed to bystanders “Why don’t you guys do something?”
Whether it was Marsha P. Johnson or Stormé DeLarverie or Sylvia Rivera hurling the first one, shot glasses, bricks and punches were thrown and six days of spontaneous uprisings ensued.
The Stonewall riots were physical acts of resistance to the routine raids and violent mistreatment of LGBTQ people by police and a major catalyst in generating our modern fight for LGBTQ rights.
The first Pride parade came after the riots, as people began to organize and demand the freedom to be themselves without fear of being arrested and beaten and killed. Since then, Pride parades have commemorated the power of LGBTQ people to rise up against oppression and have been a unique space where we can celebrate our true selves.
How far we have come!
Now we have LGBTQ and allied police officers who want to march in Pride in their uniforms.
But in cities across the world, the topic of having uniformed police marching in Pride is a controversial one.
It is unfortunate, therefore, that the Executive Board and Director of the LGBT Center OC have invited uniformed police to march with their Pride contingent, without any staff or community input.
Having uniformed police at Pride is not taking the high road. People will feel threatened and dismissed – people who do not have the option of removing their uniform for the day as an act of true solidarity.
There are a number of reasons why so many people are opposed to having uniformed police march in Pride. The fact that the first Pride was a protest of police brutality might make a case either way – it can be argued that by being present in uniform, police show solidarity with the community and perhaps begin to build bridges. Sadly, though, there are way too many problems locally and across the country. For some of us, police presence makes us feel safer and for others it is the exact opposite. Police mistreatment of LGBTQ+ People of Color especially, is not just a thing of the past. Too often Black, Brown, transgender, nonbinary, immigrants, and youth are dismissed, misgendered, harassed and abused by police. For many members of the LGBTQ+ community, police are a symbol of power that can trigger anxiety and fear. And knowing that not all cops are bad does not make people feel less afraid.
The Pride parade is symbolic, not only of resistance to police abuse, but also of resistance to the historic, systemic oppression of diverse sexualities and genders. It is about trans and queer freedom from oppressive forces. For many older LGBTQ+ folks, some who have suffered at the whim of homophobic and transphobic cops, seeing uniformed police march in Pride feels like a smack in the face. When police choose to march they are trying to show that they are part of the community and not against it. They have every right to do so. But when they march in uniform, many people feel they are whitewashing the history of Pride.
Why must off-duty police wear uniforms when marching at Pride?
It is a remarkable statement in many ways, to say that the communities who feel most threatened by the police need to buck up and be okay with it.
In social work, there is a saying that you “start where the client is.”
First, you need to determine who is the client. Is it a white cisgender man who sits on a non-profit board or is it a transgender Latina who lacks access to resources and healthcare, a Black African gay man from Uganda seeking asylum, a nonbinary teenager who has been mistreated by local police, or a 25 year old lesbian DACA recipient whose father or cousins were hauled off by ICE and deported?
When police insist on marching in their uniforms, dismissing the overwhelming fears of the most marginalized among us, are they not suggesting that some people just don’t matter? Or are they trying to prove that they care by forcing people to overcome histories of abuse.
There is a need for many in the community to have law enforcement show up as equals first, and not in an authoritative capacity. A bridge is ineffective if people are too afraid to cross it. This is an opportunity to start on the side of the bridge where the people are. Show us we matter and then, maybe, we can take a walk across the bridge together.
There are options.
The police could pay for their own contingent to be part of Pride, allowing the LGBT Center OC to represent all of the community.
Design a logo that says “Police Pride.”
Wear a patch.
But leave your holsters and weapons and brass at home.
Acknowledging the historical and systemic problems in law enforcement and the deep wounds this has created is not being anti-police.
It is being pro-community.
On this, the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, we should remember the lives of the LGBTQ+ pioneers who fought against systemic oppression and state sanctioned police brutality.
Given the widespread feelings of opposition across the world to uniformed police marching in Pride, I would hope that our law enforcement partners would understand and act from a place of humble solidarity.
Let’s honor those who paved the way for police to be out in their departments. The opposite is to use power to force something on those without it – exactly what we are trying to change.
Laura Kanter is a Queer and Trans Rights Advocate and the co-founder of the Orange County LGBTQ+ Policing Partnership and the Orange County Equality Coalition.