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Beating the Pride rap: Police presence remains a thorn in all sides

Toronto Pride marks the end of a turbulent year with a Pride Parade where uniformed officers will be banned from marching

Hamilton, Ont., police officers march along the parade route during the annual Pride Parade in Toronto, Sunday, July 3, 2016.

In Toronto's gay village, the billboard might normally pass unnoticed: a dozen unclothed men standing in a line, a banner for Steamworks bathhouse decorously displayed at waist level. An image that would be risqué in other parts of the city registers as par for the course on Church Street.

Except, that is, for one detail: a black man standing front and centre, wearing a police hat.

In the week leading up to Toronto's Pride Parade, from which uniformed police officers have been controversially barred at the behest of the activist group Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO), nothing about the racy image is as provocative as that choice of costume.

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Related: Toronto police back out of Pride parade

"We calculated what we were doing," said John Brodhagen, general manager of Steamworks Baths in Toronto.

"There is no discrimination here. And we wanted to make it absolutely clear that Steamworks is a safe place for everybody, including the police."

More than 35 years after Toronto's infamous bathhouse raids, which saw the arrests of about 300 men and sparked street protests that laid the groundwork for the modern Pride Parade, relations between the city's LGBTQ community and police officers have come a long way – capped by police chief Mark Saunders's apology for the raids last summer.

A police officer gets sprayed by water guns during the World Pride gay Pride Parade in Toronto, June 29, 2014.

Today, many in the community – even bathhouse managers – fear that the stigmatization of police threatens to offset years of progress.

Many activists, for their part, feel that segments of the community have grown complacent about the hardships that queer people of colour still describe facing at the hands of officers.

That tension will serve as the backdrop for an unusual Pride Parade this Sunday, the first of the 21st century without the familiar sight of rainbow-bedecked police. But after a testy and divisive year, the show must go on. The real work of finding common ground begins after the streamers and glitter have been cleaned off the parade route.

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"We've come a long way with the police department," Mr. Brodhagen said. "There's obviously a long way to go still … "

One of the most turbulent years in Pride Toronto's history is almost over – a year that can be dated to the moment when a fiery BLMTO contingent halted last year's parade with bullhorn cries of "shut it down" and a list of demands.

That turbulence carried through dramatic elections that brought in a new board, a charged annual general meeting vote in January to ban police floats from future parades and Mr. Saunders's attempt in February to clear the air by formally pulling uniformed officers out of the parade.

But if this Sunday will be a kind of culmination, not to say a relief, for the strained organization, first comes the final push through sleep deprivation and last-minute details to get to festival weekend.

Days before the event, an exhausted crew of staff and volunteers at Pride's Berkeley Street office were popping in and out of meetings and fielding countless phone calls from co-ordinators in the field, taking breaks only to grab coffee across the street or to meet their Uber Eats drivers at the door to pick up their first meal of the day at 3:30 p.m.

It seems a miracle Pride Month was pulled off at all: less than five months ago, when executive director Olivia Nuamah was hired to run the organization, she was the only member of its staff. Everyone else had left in the stormy few months that followed last year's festival. Soon after taking on her new role, Ms. Nuamah and Pride's board hired four others and they were off: a team of novices planning the city's biggest summer event in just a few short months.

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"I'm nervous about things not going on time, just seeming shambolic. I'm worried about not appearing wholly organized," said Ms. Nuamah, eyes drooping from a series of 15-hour days at the office (her schedule has led to forgetting to renew prescriptions and her life insurance, she says). Without the institutional knowledge of the 1,500 volunteers, some of them with a decade of experience, she says they might not have pulled off the event.

But then she acknowledges another source of anxiety: "I'm also very concerned that we're kind of having a conversation that's going to continue throughout the festival period."

A Toronto Police Service parking enforcement officer waves a Pride flag as they march along the parade route during the Pride Parade in Toronto, Sunday, July 3, 2016.

Since the day she started her job, the fierce debate over the role of police at Pride has consumed Ms. Nuamah. There have been countless media interviews, discussions with Mr. Saunders, meetings with city councillors and appearances at City Hall, where council debated continuing funding for Pride this year.

Many wanted a clear resolution in time for this year's festival, but that hasn't been possible. She says there are still many details to work out after this year's event has wrapped.

"What is police participation going to look like next year? I don't know. But are we going to make huge efforts to agree to a path forward? Absolutely," she said. "Pride Toronto is not interested – as I'm sure are the police – in this being a long, drawn-out conversation."

She's received a constant stream of e-mails from people saying they plan to boycott Pride because of the lack of police participation this year.

After the festival, she said she'd like to "create a space" for those individuals to share their feelings with her organization.

"My goal is not to further alienate that group to have them continue to feel like they've been cut out of a dialogue process," she said.

Until then, the task of drawing in the pro-police crowd at this year's Pride has fallen to Collin Joseph, the organization's festival director. He's trying to remind the city that Pride is much more than the parade – it's evolved into a serious music festival in the city. Disco legends Boney M and Evelyn "Champagne" King were booked to play at Yonge-Dundas Square and the Blockorama Stage, respectively.

But Mr. Joseph has also made a priority of meeting BLMTO's demands, including providing better support and space for Black Queer Youth. (On the activist group's website, all nine of their demands to Pride Toronto have been struck out: a sign they've been met.) Mr. Joseph said that at the time of last year's Pride Parade, he wasn't up to speed on why protesters were so angry, but after spending months on Pride's staff and hearing the grievances of marginalized groups within the LGBTQ community, he's come to understand their motivations.

Ironically, if this year's parade is targeted by dissenters, they may well be the very people who drew the ire of last year's protesters. The First Responders Unity Festival, to be held on Sunday at Winchester Park near the Village, was designed to give officers a chance to celebrate Pride in uniform, alongside firefighters and paramedics who were not affected by the parade decision.

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

Organizer Bryn Hendricks insists that the event is "not in any way a protest," but it was spurred by widespread anger at Pride's decision, including what Mr. Hendricks describes as "thousands" of people who will be skipping the parade as a result.

"We created this event to say, 'Okay, we're not going to be in Pride's confines … but we're going to be close,'" Mr. Hendricks said. "This is not an attempt to go up against Pride, it's an effort to create the exact dialogue that [BLMTO] says is necessary."

That stab at dialogue has included the recruitment of political support, including invitations to Toronto Mayor John Tory and Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown, both of whom have said they will attend.

But Mr. Hendricks and his fellow organizers were undercut this week when police chief Mark Saunders told reporters that officers would not be allowed to attend the event in uniform, because doing so would be a "distraction."

"Adding an element that could increase division was not the route we wanted to go," Mr. Saunders said in an interview later in the week.

The police chief's spirit of conciliation has not been matched by the entirety of his rank and file – dozens of police officers and civilian staff have accepted invitations to march in uniform in the New York Pride Parade on Sunday, according to the Toronto Police Association.

But many LGBTQ officers believe that the harsh words and hard feelings leading up to this year's parade should be taken as an occasion for learning, not lashing out. Brian Mitchell, president of Serving With Pride, an organization that represents LGBTQ officers, said that his feelings about the protester's demands have evolved over the past year.

"I was originally pretty upset," he said in an interview this week. "I think I've come to realize now that there are a lot of conversations to be had, and I think just going out and trying to push ourselves back into Pride isn't thinking about the reasons we got kicked out of Pride in the first place."

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