Six months after Black Lives Matter Toronto halted the city’s pride parade, the group is celebrating its latest triumph after the organization behind the major LGBT cultural festival agreed to a list of demands aimed at fighting against anti-black racism.
But the decision, which includes banning police floats and booths from the massive parade, has proven to be as contentious as the action that brought about the debate in the first place.
Mark Francis, a gay police officer from York Region, wrote on Facebook that he couldn’t “believe a group that is parading to continue to raise awareness about discrimination is intentionally excluding a certain group from the parade.”
“I understand LGBT members of the public have had a fraught past with the police, but the solution is to create dialogue and forge positive ties, not exclude.”
“Shall we exclude EMS, nurses, fire, law groups, apartheid groups, student groups, and the numerous other social and corporate groups from the parade?” he continued. “Because I sure as hell know some of those groups have the propensity to ‘trigger’ people as well.”
Others, such as Maurice Tomlinson, a generally outspoken lawyer with the Aids Legal Network, refrained from commenting publicly as “emotions are running very high right now.”
“[For] communities of colour, the presence of police makes people very unsafe and very uncomfortable.”
Pride did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Wednesday.
In September, the organization apologized for what it described as a “history of anti-blackness” and “repeated marginalization of the marginalized.”
BLMTO has clarified repeatedly that police officers would be welcome to march in the parade, as long as they weren’t in uniform or on official floats.
The BLM list of demands included increased financial support for Blockorama — a party for LGBTQ people of colour — and Queer Black Youth, a commitment to hire more black trans women and indigenous people on staff, we well as a public town hall to discuss a plan of action.
“We’ve made it very clear that we challenge the police floats and booths because [for] communities of colour, the presence of police makes people very unsafe and very uncomfortable,” said BLMTO co-founder Janaya Khan.
Toronto’s pride parade was born in the aftermath of massive police raids on bathhouses in 1981, during which hundreds of gay men were beaten and arrested. Pride, BLMTO argues, has been political since its inception, and demands for greater access for groups like Black Queer Youth were made for years, with little progress, until BLMTO’s action last summer.
In November, Toronto police set up a sting operation cracking down on public sex in an Etobicoke park, which resulted in 72 people charged and which critics said largely targeted gay men.
For Tomlinson, who is married to a former Toronto police officer and LGBT liaison officer, the presence of police at the parade reinforces a sense of security for those who have experienced homophobic assaults, himself included.
“We want to show the bigots that the police stand with us,” he wrote on Facebook, prior to the vote.
He delivers police LGBTQ sensitivity training in the Caribbean, and highlights Toronto cops in the parade because “undercuts the myth that police presence in pride will undermine societal respect for officers.”
Still, he acknowledges that “police have a LONG way to go towards being fully sensitive to the needs of LGBT people” and that “some pride-goers are triggered by the presence of police in Pride, especially in uniform, and he wanted those people to feel that the parade was their’s as well.”
In Montego Bay, the pride parade he’s coordinated for the past three years deliberately has no police “because of the experience of the participants,” he said. Instead, the parade has relied on security measures, like secret locations and unannounced “flash stands.”
“We did not want to unnecessarily militarize the event, especially when Jamaican police are still complicit in attacks against the LGBTI community and offer poor investigation of homophobic attacks,” he wrote. Some people were also afraid of the police outing them.
“We want to show the bigots that the police stand with us.”
But despite the lack of consensus on police floats in the parade within the LGBT community, Khan and their team, made up largely of young queer men and women, say this is progress.
“The great thing about this kind of work is it doesn’t require consensus. Justice looks at the meaningful engagement of all people, and it’s really ensuring that the debate is happening,” said Khan. “The polarizing aspect to me speaks to the level of political immaturity in Canada as a country and Toronto as a city when it comes to the history of race and police brutality in certain communities.”
Khan also points out that the decision was not made by a small number of people, but by Pride’s general membership, the majority of whom voted in favour of meeting BLMTO’s demands.
As for the police, police spokesman Mark Pugash insisted it’s unclear what actually happened in the meeting.
“I can tell you that whatever uncertainty there is with Pride, it’s not going to stop our continuing and expanding outreach efforts into the LGBTQ communities,” he said. “That is going to continue, unaffected.”