Rachel Giese is a Toronto writer and an editor-at-large at Chatelaine.
It's a huge, slick, mainstream event now, but Toronto Pride has scrappy origins. In February, 1981, 150 Toronto police officers raided four bathhouses (adult-only venues where men meet to have sex) and, in one of the biggest mass arrests in Canadian history, locked up 289 people. The rowdy protests that followed evolved into Toronto's annual Pride celebrations for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and two-spirited people.
Last summer, the Toronto chapter of the anti-racism coalition Black Lives Matter was invited to be an honoured group in the parade. It was fitting: Many leaders of BLM-TO are queer or trans, and both Pride and BLM were created to fight for civil rights and to push back against police violence.
But when BLM-TO peacefully stopped the parade for 25 minutes to demonstrate against Pride's own failings on issues of inclusion and to present a list of demands, it was attacked from within and outside the LGBTQ community: How dare they bring politics into Pride?
Then last week at Pride's annual general meeting, after members agreed to those demands and voted to prohibit police floats and booths, queer social media feeds exploded with arguments for and against. An open letter written last summer by a gay cop asking for police inclusion was widely circulated. Mayor John Tory called the vote a "backwards step." (To be clear: Individual officers are still welcome to participate in the parade as community members, and Toronto police are free to show their support in other ways during Pride month.)
The community has never been a monolith, and clashes are an inevitable feature of any political movement. As Pride has mushroomed from a gritty, volunteer-run gathering to a glittery, corporate-funded festival, questions about what it stands for and who it includes have become even more contentious. Does Pride belong to big banks and beer companies? To the mayor and police? Or does it belong to us? And just who is "us" anyway?
The chorus against BLM sees the presence of police at Pride as evidence of a mission accomplished, proof of the community's respectability and acceptance. And that's an understandable feeling for a people who have been bullied and shamed, who survived the devastation of AIDS and whose civil rights were secured only recently – gay sex was decriminalized in 1969, same-sex marriage legalized in 2005.
But our survival, and those rights and that acceptance, are not the result of spontaneous enlightenment. They were won by a feisty minority who came out at a time when doing so could mean losing your job or being disowned by your family. And the anti-gay laws that feisty minority battled to change were upheld and enforced – often brutally – by police.
Just one example: In 1994, when the Ontario government voted against a bill to recognize same-sex relationships, protesters gathered at Queen's Park. Police and security guards wearing rubber gloves (AIDS panic was at its height) threw demonstrators down the steps of the legislature.
Of course, there are good people in policing, and of course progress has been made. But systemic discrimination and serious problems with police accountability remain. For many people, police are not a benign or benevolent presence. Ask a black kid in Toronto's Rexdale neighbourhood who's been stopped by cops while walking home from school. Ask an indigenous woman in Val-d'Or, Que., where police have been accused of sexual assault. Ask a gay guy in Toronto's Etobicoke area, where a recent police sting operation has targeted cruising areas.
Or ask BLM-TO, which has raised legitimate concerns and fears about a lack of transparency in the investigation into the shooting death of a mentally ill black man by police, and the practice of carding, which has been used disproportionately against black people.
So, given all this, is it any wonder BLM-TO and others objected to seeing delegations of officers in uniform marching in the Pride parade? And shouldn't it be troubling to anyone who cares about human rights, justice and history that crowds on the sidelines cheered police for showing up but booed BLM-TO for taking a stand?
Pride will never be perfect. It will never meet everyone's needs and expectations. But let's at least agree on this: If not for activists willing to take a stand, Pride Toronto and all it represents wouldn't exist at all.