Skip to main content

Signs on the window of the Pride Toronto offices at 55 Berkeley St. in downtown Toronto, are pictured on Jan. 19, 2017.

When Pride Toronto sided with Black Lives Matter this week and voted to ban police floats from its parade, it set off a raging debate about the purpose of the cherished festival. Is it a protest or a celebration? Can it be both? Dakshana Bascaramurty and Eric Andrew-Gee report on the divide within the city's LGBTQ community

It was two hours till showtime and Ryan G. Hinds was walking through Toronto's gay village in the outfit he'd chosen to host the opening ceremony of the weeklong Pride 2015 – a sparkling gold shirt, cutoff shorts, a hefty brass elephant necklace and a full face of makeup. As he turned down Church Street, his arms full of audiovisual equipment, he was confronted by two police officers. They told him they were looking for a suspected criminal whose description – "tall and black" – matched Mr. Hinds's. They asked his name and address and after a few minutes sent him on his way.

Soon after, Mr. Hinds again found himself in the company of police officers, this time marching beside him in the Pride Parade. Reports of cops carding other gay black men bubbled up in the months that followed and at the next Pride, last summer, Mr. Hinds watched Black Lives Matter Toronto bring the parade to a halt, demanding that police be banned from walking shoulder to shoulder with members of the LGBTQ community.

The decision by Pride Toronto members this week to embrace those demands – police floats and booths will no longer be welcome – has revealed a more existential debate within the city's LGBTQ community about the festival that has grown to be the largest in the world. Should Toronto Pride return to its roots as a protest movement or move forward as a celebration that promotes inclusion, even of former foes?

Members of the Black Lives Matter movement stand amidst coloured clouds from smoke grenades at the 2016 Pride Parade in Toronto.

A step back or a step forward?

The 2016 Pride Parade was always going to be political.

It came in the wake of Orlando's Pulse nightclub shooting, which claimed 49 lives, most of them LGBTQ – a targeted attack on the community.

For the first time, Canada's Prime Minister marched in the parade. The city's first black police chief, Mark Saunders, donned a rainbow lei.

But it was the politics of anger and frustration – rather than mourning or celebration – that carried the day. Around 3 p.m., as the Black Lives Matter contingent, the one invited to lead the parade, inched toward Yonge and Carlton Streets, it ground to a stop.

"Shut it down," some cried. "We will not be moved." About two dozen activists, holding bullhorns and fake coffins, sat cross-legged in the intersection. They said they would stay put until Pride agreed to a list of demands: more funding for organizations representing people of colour, more diversity in hiring and, most controversially, a ban on police floats and information booths in future parades.

Mathieu Chantelois, then the executive director of Pride, was summoned. Wearing a grim expression, he signed the document.

Some spectators cheered the protesters, but many more booed or quietly complained. The backlash was instant.

In August, Pride hosted a heated town hall to discuss Black Lives Matter's list of demands. Then on Tuesday this week, a larger-than-usual crowd filtered into a room at Ryerson University, expecting the debate to continue at Pride's annual general meeting. The previous day, Black Lives Matter Toronto had tweeted, "For those attending the Pride Toronto AGM, remember the demands. And remember they were signed and agreed on. #blackpride."

When Gwen Bartleman, a white woman who describes herself as a butch dyke, noticed the topic wasn't on the agenda, she made a motion to add it. She is not a member of Black Lives Matter, but said Pride Toronto has a history of practising anti-black racism and she didn't trust the organization to carry out its promise.

Board elections were also on the agenda and when one black candidate spoke about how police were friends of the community, he was shouted down by the crowd, says Shawn Ahmed, a gay Bangladeshi-Canadian man who attended.

"Anyone who spoke with even an ounce of kindness to the police or to acknowledge they had done anything positive to the community were heckled," he said.

When it came time to vote on approving Black Lives Matter's demands, the one about police still the most contentious, Mr. Ahmed's hand was one of about a dozen raised in opposition. The vote passed with overwhelming support, according to those who attended. (The breakdown of the vote is still unknown. Pride Toronto did not respond to multiple requests for interviews with staff and board members, or provide information about the meeting.)

But as news of the ban on police floats and booths spread on social media, voices of dissent took over the online discussion. Pride Toronto's Facebook page was flooded with one-star reviews from members who said the organization should overturn its decision. The downtown office was postered with signs that said "Shame! Not my Pride. The Toronto Police Can Stand with Me." Members of the LGBTQ community said they planned to boycott this year's Pride Parade if the police cannot join the march and suggested starting an alternative event. Some, such as long-time gay activist James Dubro, renounced their Pride Toronto memberships.

Mr. Dubro, who once served as the gay community's police liaison in 52 Division, says what troubles him most was that a single vote was all it took to ban police floats and booths at Pride. The organization has a dispute-resolution process in place to handle complaints, in which lawyers review the case and mediate or arbitrate resolutions. To jump to a ban without following that process is "unconscionable," Mr. Dubro says.

Uros Karadzic, a gay man who has attended Pride for two decades, said the vote has sent the cause on a regressive course.

"In their mind," he said of those who support the police float and booth ban, "this is the purest thing to do. And, 'I don't care if we go back to handwritten placards and 200 people marching and shouting down the street.' To me that would be a step back."

Police officer Keiss Zamir high-fives the crowd at the Gay Pride Parade in Toronto. June 30, 2013.

From grassroots movement to big-budget event

Before the huge budget, before the floats for big banks and beer, Pride was an anti-police riot. The first parade in 1981, more of a march, really, was to protest the now-infamous police raids of four bathhouses in the city, in which more than 300 men were arrested. It was of a much smaller scale then: Participants picked up garbage after the march was done. The bulk of activists were white gay men.

Over the years, Pride ballooned to a huge corporate festival with celebrity grand marshals and weeks of events that serves a very diverse community. But some elements of it are very subversive. Parade weekend is the only time when old men wearing nothing but leather harnesses and young men sporting angel wings strut down streets lined with a cross-section of Toronto's population, many families among them. In 2015, the organization received more than $2-million in sponsorships from business behemoths such as Toronto-Dominion Bank, Air Canada and Winners and drew an estimated million revellers to the parade route, shepherded by 1,750 volunteers.

Pride's economic impact on the city is calculated in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

To some, this is a sign of progress and the mainstreaming of queer culture. To others, it proves the organization has lost its way.

High-profile talent has become a staple at Pride, all while events or spaces for the most marginalized members of the community, such as the Black Queer Youth Stage, are given short shrift, Ms. Bartleman said.

"They had money to bring in … a Jonas brother – but they didn't have money to give to the black youth of our community? That's just disgusting," she said.

(This week, the group's corporate patrons have wanted nothing to do with the controversy swirling around Pride. Of the more than half-dozen major sponsors contacted by The Globe and Mail, only Manulife responded to say it had no comment.)

Ms. Bartleman traces the disconnect she thinks Pride Toronto has with its political origins to the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2005. The triumph in court changed the organization's goals, she says.

"There were certain members of the community that were like, 'Okay, we've made it. There are no other fights left.'"

But indigenous, black and trans individuals say they still face enormous struggles.

"A lot of racism and oppression have been felt by marginalized communities within LGBT spaces," says Akio Maroon, a queer black woman who was elected to the Pride board at this week's AGM. "[They] have been unfairly and inhumanely targeted by Toronto police in the past."

Frustratingly for Mr. Karadzic, a white man who is a Serbian immigrant, race has become inextricable from the conversation about the role of police at Pride. On a Facebook post where he shared his opposition to the ban on police floats and booths, one friend took note of the fact that everyone who "liked" Mr. Karadzic's status were white men.

But a white man whose husband and son are black and who voted in support of Black Lives Matter's demands says this is an opportunity to bridge a gap between two groups he says don't talk to each other enough.

"A lot of white folks who aren't connected much to the black community don't know about some of the things that have happened," he says.

"This gives us an opportunity to say, 'Hey, there's actually people in our community – black people and trans people and indigenous people – who had a really, really bad experience with police."

A Toronto Police Service parking-enforcement officer waves a Pride flag during the Pride Parade in 2016.

The Toronto Police Service says it's waiting for more clarity about what the Pride vote means. Police will still be needed to patrol the parade, even if they are not invited to march in uniform or set up information booths.

Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association, acknowledged the fraught history between his officers and the city's LGBTQ community, but said times have changed since the 1981 bathhouse raids. "Okay, 35 years ago – but the world was a different place," he said. "They talk about the bathhouse raids and the relationship in the past, which our chief has stepped up and apologized for."

Since then, the police union has worked hard to build relationships with the LGBTQ community, Mr. McCormack said. "And now you say, 'You can't be part of that because you wear a uniform and you represent oppression'? Come on."

But the LGBTQ community has had more recent beefs with police. Mr. Hinds found Chief Saunders's apology for the bathhouse raids last summer disingenuous, considering the force was likely planning its widely criticized Project Marie sting around the same time.

Last fall, police launched the six-week undercover operation in which they arrested 72 people, many of them members of the LGBTQ community, for sex-related offences allegedly committed in Marie Curtis Park in the city's west end.

In recent years, police have been criticized for the practice of carding black and brown men, which Mr. Hinds experienced directly.

He said he's frustrated by the suggestion his community should have talked through issues with police rather than outright banning them from marching in Pride.

"I think that line of discussion places the onus on the community," he said.

Brian Mitchell, president of Serving With Pride, an organization that represents LGBT police officers, sees this as an opportunity for improved communication.

"I 100-per-cent understand where the community is coming from," Mr. Mitchell said. "When I was 19 years old, I was jumped and beat up outside a gay club. And I was afraid to report to police. … I get that there are still portions of the community that feel that way. And I think we need to keep that dialogue open and not shut them out."

Mayor John Tory and Premier Kathleen Wynne have encouraged police and Pride to work out a resolution, but have not yet commented on whether Pride's decision will affect government funding, which amounted to $260,000 from the city and more than $300,000 from the province in 2016.

Susan Gapka, a long-time trans activist who ran unsuccessfully in Pride's board election this week, is torn on the question of police participation in the parade. In the past, while sitting on a Toronto police committee on LGBTQ issues, she recommended that officers march without uniforms, as a compromise, but was overruled, she said.

Ms. Gapka takes a middle position on the purpose of Pride, saying it serves a dual role as a public ratification of progress and a vehicle to push for more progress still. She wishes more people would see it the same way.

"Some people will say it's a protest, other people will say it's a celebration. It's both of those things."

Members of Black Lives Matter Toronto take part in the annual Pride Parade in Toronto on Sunday, July 3, 2016.

Pride Toronto and Black Lives Matter: A timeline

Feb. 10, 2016

Pride Toronto invites Black Lives Matter Toronto to lead that year's parade as an honorary group, praising its "extremely important and significant work."

July 3, 2016

Black Lives Matter protesters interrupt the annual Pride Parade, blocking it at Yonge and Carlton Streets. They refuse to move until a list of their demands, including banning police floats from future parades, is agreed to by organizers. Then-executive director Mathieu Chantelois signs the list of demands.

July 4, 2016

Mr. Chantelois tells the Toronto Star he only agreed to the demands to get the parade moving and that he has no authority to decide what goes in future parades. BLM accuses him of backpedalling.

Aug. 10, 2016

Mr. Chantelois announces his resignation as executive director, saying it was time to "move on."

Aug. 30, 2016

A Pride town hall sees a heated debate over whether to accept BLM's demands around police participation. One community member is reportedly jeered for saying he filed a formal complaint about BLM's tactics during the parade in July.

Jan. 17, 2017

At Pride Toronto's annual general meeting, members vote to endorse BLM's demands, prompting an outcry from police and members of the wider LGBTQ community. The mood at the meeting is more upbeat. "It was exciting to see so many hands go up when you've been silenced for the last 20 years," BLM activist Ravyn Wngz said.

Eric Andrew-Gee