The LGBTQ pride movement has never been without controversy. In recent days, many people have expressed outrage about The Center’s decision to not invite law enforcement to participate in this year’s event. The decision was not easy nor made lightly.
The first pride parade was held in New York City in 1970 to commemorate the Stonewall Riots of the previous year. That seminal event was a key moment in the LGBTQ civil rights movement. The Stonewall Riots were also a protest in response to continued harassment by police of the gay community. Indeed, The Center’s own history is closely tied to incidents of police harassment here in Denver in the early seventies. Over the years The Center and many other organizations and individuals, including LGBTQ officers themselves, have worked very hard to improve relationships with law enforcement and make it possible for LGBTQ officers to serve proudly. So why make this decision now?
Things are better, but not for everyone. While many individuals in the community are currently upset by this decision, The Center received a great deal of criticism over the years for working with police. (After a DPD officer shot and killed Jessie Hernandez, protestors briefly stopped the pride parade because of police participation.) In the context of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, many of our staff members objected to us working with police. One Black staff member resigned and another had a visceral reaction because of past trauma around interacting with police.
This trauma is real and constant for many in our community. In Aurora, police officers detained and killed Elijah McClain and the case is being investigated by the Colorado Attorney General. Some officers later re-enacted the chokehold used on McClain at the place where he died and texted the photo to one another; one officer involved replied “haha.” In June, Brittany Gilliam and her four children were stopped at gunpoint and forced to lie on the pavement because police mistakenly believed her car was stolen. There’s a federal lawsuit pending against the Aurora Police about their brutal response to last June’s Black Lives Matter protests when they used chemical agents, batons and projectiles at the crowd who gathered to play violins as a memorial to McClain. The Denver Office of the Independent Monitor was very critical of the Denver Police response to Black Lives Matter protests last summer. DPD is currently being sued by multiple individuals over excessive use of force.
While Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ rights movement are deeply connected, we have also had longstanding and valued relationships with law enforcement — in no small part from the work done by many activists, including members of law enforcement, over the years. There’s no way to discount how important those relationships are and how important and difficult the work of law enforcement officers is. And there’s no way to avoid that this is a divisive decision that has upset many people.
If we are going to say Black Lives Matter on our website or post the message on our social media channels, shouldn’t we be held accountable for our relationship with law enforcement? Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were two transgender women who were important early activists in the pride movement and who are often cited as heroes in the community. We have a mural of their faces painted on the side of our building. Shouldn’t we at least pause for a moment to consider what their point of view on policing might be, even if that position is not popular?
I am very grateful for DPD’s official response as well as the DPD LGBTQ liaison’s response: “The Denver Police Department considers the LGBTQ community valued partners in safety. We respect The Center’s decision to have law enforcement sit out this Pride Fest and look forward to building upon our relationships with The Center and LGBTQ community moving forward.” Lost in some of the media coverage and social media debate is our intention to enter into dialogue with law enforcement to address these issues and how we can move forward together.
The LGBTQ pride movement has never been without controversy. Early activists for LGBTQ rights lost jobs and family members before it was safe to speak out and before there were civil rights protections in place. Despite popular depictions of the LGBTQ community in media that portray everyone as white, the pride movement represents a diverse group of people from many backgrounds. The issue of policing in our communities is an issue that all Americans must address. We must listen to all voices, including Black and transgender activists, as we move forward to try and make our society more inclusive and fairer for everyone.
Rex Fuller is CEO of The Center on Colfax, a nexus for support and activism for the Colorado LGBTQ community since 1976 and administrator for Denver Pride.