There's a long history of the police oppressing queer people in the U.S. and elsewhere, and it's not a bug, it's a feature.
June is Pride month, where we LGBTQ+ folks get to celebrate our resilience and survival. For some people, that looks like putting up a rainbow flag, while for others it means attending Pride parades and related events. Others are still in the closet and may cheer on their brethren from afar.
Some of the largest Pride events worldwide, like those in Los Angeles and São Paulo, expect millions of attendees, which could be a reason to need some crowd control such as the police, right?
Like many, I am firmly in camp “no cops at Pride.” Here’s why.
First, there is Stonewall. What was considered the very first Pride was actually a riot. In June of 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular spot for LGBTQ+ people. Queer folk, notably trans women of color Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera, fought back rather than acquiescing.
But this wasn’t just any police raid on a bar with potentially rowdy patrons. It was yet another instance of the police actively violating the basic human rights of LGBTQ+ people, an ongoing issue in 20th century America that still continues today.
That isn’t an isolated case. Police violence against LGBTQ+ people was (and is) pervasive. From the early 1900s onward, police raided gay bars and the like in order to enforce morality codes and sodomy laws.
The police made it their business to break up consensual adult sex. Regularly. For over a century.
Because queer history isn’t taught in most schools, I suspect a lot of people don’t know about the persistent harassment that queer people have faced in the US for much of its history. Being outed in these police raids could cost someone their job, their house, even their family. It was a brutal form of social control.
And I’m not particularly inclined to trust or want people around who represent an institution that persecuted me and mine for the past several decades, especially when that very institution had its start as patrols to catch runaway slaves.
Unfortunately, police are still persecuting members of the LGBTQ+ community such as trans women of color, notably when they are suspected of being sex workers. New York just repealed their “walking while trans” bill one year ago, which allowed police to unlawfully detain someone they thought might be selling sex, based on stereotypical appearances.
According to research by Lambda Legal, one in eight LGBTQ+ respondents reported being verbally assaulted by police, with 3% reporting sexual harassment and 2% reporting physical assault. This is not an institution that has the best interests of queer folk at heart, along with numerous other marginalized people, including non-white people, immigrants, and the homeless.
None of this is an accident. For centuries in Western thought, anyone who was not cisgender and heterosexual has been pathologized and demonized, with various institutions—from psychiatry and medicine to the criminal justice system—tasked with keeping us contained so that we don’t pollute the majority.
We’ve been demonized as perverts and groomers (the latter moral panic being ongoing), so it’s no surprise that we’ve been painted as enemies not merely of the people, but also of the state. With our legal rights slow to arrive, we were easy targets for the police. Hopefully, that is changing.
Homophobia and transphobia aren’t just Western phenomena either (though we’re certainly good at exporting them along with colonialism and capitalism). Same-sex relations are criminalized in 71 countries worldwide, with 11 of those countries including the death penalty as a criminal justice system response to consensual same-sex activities.
These systems don’t work if the police aren’t also complicit.
Yes, of course, there are some good-hearted and non-homophobic/transphobic/etc. people working in the police force. But with the centuries-long weight of an institution that incentivizes harassment of marginalized people comes peer pressure and lots of “this is how we’ve always done it” incentives to just keep going down the same path.
So, what will we do without police at Pride?
We LGBTQ+ people tend to be creative as a survival strategy, so I imagine we’ll come up with something like recruiting volunteers from our own organizations to serve as crowd control and medics as needed. I’m not as worried about the logistics as I am about the unquestioning loyalty to narratives that no longer serve us, if they ever did. The people who held the power to ruin our lives, mere decades ago or in some cases still today, do not belong at our events.
I’d like to imagine possibilities beyond policing, like investing in visions of community care. But for now, I would say we’ll do fine “policing” ourselves, thank you very much.