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Where Do We Go After Police Pride Bans?

Let’s determine what the benchmarks are –and, more importantly, how they might be achieved…
By Paul Gallant
Neil Paterson seems like a stand-up guy, so I have no reason to disbelieve him when he tells me, “It is without a doubt that the police marching group at Pride will get the biggest cheers and the biggest support from the community, over many of the other groups at Pride.” He’s the assistant commissioner of the Victoria Police, a state police department responsible for Melbourne, a very multicultural Australian city of about five million people. Paterson marches with about 160 uniformed officers each year during Midsumma Festival, Melbourne’s Pride.
Living in Toronto, it’s hard to get my head around what Paterson’s saying. Here, uniformed police officers have not been welcomed in the Pride parade since 2016, when Black Lives Matter, the honoured group that year, stopped the parade to issue a number of demands, including the “removal of police floats in the Pride marches and parades.” Cities like Vancouver, Halifax and Edmonton have followed suit. The complaints against the Toronto police are myriad: queer people of colour are subject to racial profiling and are more harshly policed than others; police failed to take seriously the concerns that a serial killer was stalking queer men of colour and those from more marginal communities; police arrested gay men for cruising in an isolated part of an Etobicoke park.
Older gay and lesbian people – who have, over the decades, seen dramatic improvements in more blatantly homophobic police behaviour – tend to bristle at the uniformed-officer bans: our former bully now wants to march with us! We have been vindicated! Set aside a few uncomfortable details and let us enjoy this win! But younger people, and people from racialized communities, have established different benchmarks.
What I’m curious about is what exactly those benchmarks are and, more importantly, how they might be achieved. For example, the boycott against South Africa ended when apartheid ended there in 1994 – done and done. But you can’t just sign a document to put an end to bad policing. Even the best police departments will occasionally hire assholes, and even the best officers will make mistakes both in the moment (needless escalation of violence, sometimes because of biases, sometimes purely out of panic) and systemically (policies and attitudes that target or ignore certain communities). What does a police force have to do to be good enough to be invited to, and cheered in, a Pride parade?
Paterson’s answer is, frankly, boring. It’s about boards and oversight committees and, ugh, reports and studies. “Police often look for an evidence base to support something. We do that because we are used to presenting matters at court. We are often looking for evidence of why we should change,” says Paterson, an out gay man who has two children from a previous heterosexual marriage and two children with his male partner of 17 years. “We have to capture the evidence to present to the whole organization that this is the reason we need to change. It’s the lived experience, the storytelling that gives you a really good footing to drive cultural reform.”
Because much of the “evidence for change” produced by progressive forces within Victoria Police is gathered in partnership with other government agencies or partner organizations, it’s harder to ignore. Last year the force partnered with academics to release the report Policing for Same Sex Attracted and Sex and Gender Diverse (SSASGD) Young Victorians. “There are a number of actions coming out of that study,” says Paterson. “In this state, we typically don’t get reports that aren’t actioned. We hold ourselves accountable, and the community holds us accountable in terms of meeting recommendations.”
A few years ago, there were complaints from young trans people about how police were addressing them on the street. New policies were rolled out with the help of the service’s system of 230 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Liaison Officers. “Police weren’t familiar, hadn’t been trained and had little exposure to any member of the trans community in terms of correct pronouns and how a particular person would want to be referred to,” Paterson says. “It was about, first of all, treating everybody with dignity and respect. If [officers are] not sure which pronoun to use, then [they] should ask.”
Paterson and one of his colleagues, Gabrielle Tyacke, the only full-time LGBTI Liaison Officer in Victoria Police, both presented on these topics at Proud to Be Your Friend, an international LGBT-focused conference for criminal justice professionals that Toronto hosted this June. About 150 people from 13 countries attended. Organizer Danielle Bottineau, Tyacke’s Toronto equivalent, says the annual conference gives attendees a chance to share life experiences and best practices. “We’re extremely fortunate in a lot of ways here in Canada,” says Bottineau. “We have members from different countries who were not supported by their services, who can’t wear the uniform and be LGBTQ. You can still be fired in some areas of the world for being LGBTQ.”
One of the key takeaways from the conference, and from my conversation with Paterson, is that more community-minded policing has to start with how police organizations treat their own LGBT employees. Police culture tends to be hypermasculine, heteronormative and white, which can discourage queers and people of colour from signing up – and, if they do sign up, from speaking up. In their own organizations, LGBT officers can feel like marginalized queers do in the city at large: invisible and disrespected.
“The commitment starts at home in your own agency,” says Paterson. “You can’t be trusted by the community unless the LGBTI community within the agency trusts their own agency, and feels valued and respected. So everything you do comes across as genuine.”
For the community, “genuine” means being open, transparent, and honest about where you’ve gone wrong – admitting to mistakes, proposing how to prevent them in the future and then demonstrating that action has been taken. It’s not revolutionary stuff and it won’t solve problems overnight. There’s lots of jargon. But the best kind of progress is progress that comes from heartfelt thoughtfulness. It’s boring, but effective.

PAUL GALLANT is a Toronto-based writer and editor who writes about travel, innovation, city building, social issues (particularly LGBT issues) and business for a variety of national and international publications. He’s the executive editor of Bold, a global travel magazine for Canadians.

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