Sequeerity watching Proud Boys protesting. Image via Kimmy Hull.
When Kimmy Hull is out on the job, she’s often wearing a black T-shirt, emblazoned with glow-in-the-dark word: SEQUEERITY, and armed just with a heavy flashlight. This is her uniform for the private security company she started six years ago out of Minneapolis. At that time, Hull had already spent nearly two decades working in security—she said she got into the business because she wanted to see concerts for free, but got increasingly frustrated with the “hardass” demeanor of security personnel hired for queer events who’d too often misgender someone or make attendees feel uncomfortable.
When she started Sequeerity, Hull didn’t fully understand that she’d identified a gap in the security industry which, just years later, would be glaring. The specter of anti-LGBTQ violence has cast a dark cloud over this Pride month. Far-right extremists, buoyed by mainstream GOP policy and rhetoric, have been laser focused on anti-LGBTQ hate and conspiracy theories for the last year, with particular focus on attacking trans rights and events that involve kids. Many of the protests targeting the LGBTQ community in the last year have drawn an array of neo-Nazis, white nationalists, Proud Boys, and weapons. In late May, the Department of Homeland Security issued a National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin reaffirming the U.S. to be in a “heightened threat environment” and identified events and individuals from the LGBTQ community as potential targets. Though there have been disruptions at a few Pride events so far this month, so far the most disturbing threats seen online have fortunately proven to be empty—often seemingly made with the goal of scaring the LGBTQ community indoors. But this environment has put Pride organizers in a difficult position when it comes to making the community feel safe enough to attend events. The optics of leaning too heavily on the police are complicated. There’s been a growing backlash to the visibility of police at Pride events in recent years, with older members of the community reminding their younger counterparts that “the first Pride was a riot.” Pride month grew out of the 1969 Stonewall riots, which were triggered by police raids on popular gay bars in New York’s West Village. Rising antipathy towards police pride floats has also coincided with the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Hull, for her part, said that she used to participate in the drag queen float at Minneapolis Pride every year,, up until local cops shot and killed a 24-year-old Black man named Jamal Clark, sparking citywide protests in 2015. After that, she stopped attending because she felt uneasy about the police involvement in the parade.
Additionally, many Pride organizers might have legitimate concerns that some rank-and-file police officers are ideologically aligned with anti-LGBTQ positions or even enmeshed with local extremist groups (for example, one cop was seen on camera high-fiving a Proud Boy at a drag show protest in Columbus, Ohio, in December). There are similar concerns around private security companies, which often comprise former law enforcement or military. The Multnomah County GOP in Oregon once hired a local security team that was run by Proud Boys. And there’s even been examples of far-right extremists urging their followers to infiltrate security for events they want to target, such as at abortion clinics. The growing need for security at LGBTQ events has fueled an explosion of community defense groups, generally made up of volunteers who may show up carrying AR-15s or rainbow parasols, depending on what part of the country you’re in. A recent guide to Pride security published by Western States Center, a self-described “pro-democracy group” that monitors extremism in the Pacific Northwest, made recommendations when it comes to walking a fine line between security and policing.
“It really helps to have a team on your side that’s familiar with the LGBTQ community and, even more ideally, familiar with the local landscape,” said Kate Bitz, a program manager and organizer with the Western States Center. For example, the organizer of Spokane Pride hired off-duty bouncers from queer-friendly bars to work security at her event, said Bitz. “These are not only people who know our community really, well, but they're aware of bad actors who’ve tried to cause problems at their day jobs.” The goal of developing a security plan that does not overly rely on law enforcement doesn’t mean shutting local cops out entirely, stressed Bitz. In fact, some pride organizers she spoke to said that they’d been able to build a genuine, trusting relationship with their local police department where they felt comfortable to position themselves some distance from the event, just in case of emergencies, and let community groups handle the rest. “But that’s a lot of work, to explain the situation to outside agencies, to get people politically in a position where they are taking the concerns of Pride organizers seriously,” Bitz added. “We prefer calling any resources before we have to call the police, but if the police need to be called, we’ll call ‘em,” said Hull. “If we can avoid it, we’ll do anything.” Hull has built up a good relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department over the years, but now that requests for her services are coming in from other Pride organizers in Minnesota, she’s finding herself having to forge new alliances. “I don’t let my personal feelings interfere with my job of keeping people safe,” said Hull. “I always start out with letting [the cops] know I appreciate them, then I go, ‘OK, here’s how we do things, what do you need from us — we’re doing this together, what do we need to make this work right.’ Even if it’s a jerkass cop, they can appreciate that.”