How Cops Turned Pride Into the Police’s Greatest PR Stunt

How Cops Turned Pride Into the Police’s Greatest PR Stunt

For the past 20 years, Pride has been a public relations opportunity for police. They’ve used the celebration as an excuse to brandish their equipment with rainbows, relax their stern demeanors, and propose to their partners—all while wearing uniform. Three years ago, in London in 2017, Pride-goers were told to “expect the most visible policing effort in the event’s 45-year history.” That same year, a cop got down on his knees to propose to his boyfriend through the railings. Last year, the NYPD hosted a Pride celebration at their headquarters, and New Orleans PD debuted their rainbow badge, which officers wore throughout June.

Since joining Pride parades in the early 2000s, the police, along with corporations that now participate beside them, have used these events to rebrand themselves as tolerant, modern liberals—something past and present conduct shows is unequivocally false. With their rainbow-colored cars and their rainbow-colored accoutrements, the police have attempted to ameliorate their public image, obscuring the history and perpetuation of racist, transphobic violence with a narrative of progress.

Since the killing of George Floyd triggered a broader reckoning around police violence, Pride events around the world have banned law enforcers from attending. It’s a crucial first step towards revoking the whitewashed, assimilationist shift that led to police participation in the first place—a Pride which, arguably, has done more for the police than the LGBTQ+ community. It’s built a mirage that’s given them further access to the vulnerable communities they’re still massacring. Data from the National Crime Victimization Survey indicated that between 2012 and 2016, as many as 300,000 crimes of police violence against LGBTQ+ individuals were not reported. But in the digital era, when civilian recordings regularly expose police brutality towards Black people, it’s hard to hide that the fact that the ebulliently tolerant image police project at Pride couldn’t be further from their truth.

Days prior to this year’s Pride month, an officer killed Tony McDade, a black trans man, in Tallahassee. In the first week of Pride month, Maha al-Mutairi, a Kuwaiti trans woman, recorded an account of her rape and abduction by police. Last year, the same day the New York Times published the NYPD’s “Stonewall Riot Apology,” Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, an Afro-Latinx trans woman, was found dead in solitary confinement after she suffered a fatal epileptic seizure. Video footage later emerged which indicated that staff neglected to give her life-saving care. Two months earlier, following calls to 911 after getting locked out of his apartment, Kawasaki Trawick, a gay Black man living in The Bronx, was shot dead by officers. On Sunday, on the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, police in New York roughly handled and pepper-sprayed participants in the Queer Liberation March.

Because of the police’s strong PR, the memory of Stonewall—a week of spontaneous riots by the LGBT community in the summer of 1969, and the historical basis for today’s Pride events—has often bypassed the fact that Pride was intended as a demonstration, in response to the clash between trans and queer people and the police. When Black trans femmes led patrons at one of Manhattan’s gay hotspots, The Stonewall Inn, to resist a routine police raid, it triggered the beginning of the modern LGBTQ civil rights movement. A year later, the first Pride Parade, originally named Christopher Street Liberation Day, took place in New York to commemorate the Stonewall Riots’ first anniversary. Fundamentally anti-police in its outlook, the first Pride was a riot.

From inception, the police were trained to be brutally anti-protest and anti-minority. Writing in The End Of Policing, Alex S. Vitale charts the organization’s formation back to early 19th century Britain, when Conservative statesmen Sir Robert Peel introduced 1829’s Metropolitan Police Act, which replaced the previous system of parish constables and watchmen with a unit of force that could assert political control and enforce industrial capitalism. As Peel’s Act became internationally influential, police forces sprung up across North American cities. “The main functions of the new police, despite their claims of political neutrality, were to protect property, quell riots, put down strikes and other industrial actions, and produce a disciplined industrial workforce,” writes Vitale.

This institution was vital in constructing, regulating and surveilling sexuality and gender. Because the police were first imagined as a force to maintain political control, anyone who has deviated outside of a white, cisheteronormative frame has historically been killed, imprisoned, punished, tortured, declared insane, declared contagiously ill, or forced into frame by the ever-present threat of lawful violence. To be queer, therefore, means to be inherently anti-police.

To be queer, therefore, means to be inherently anti-police.

With the rise of civil rights movements from the mid-20th century onwards, the police “developed massive systems of files to keep track of the growing movements,” Vitale writes. True to their anti-activist foundation, the police kept a close eye on the Mattachine Society, when it was established in the winter of 1950, and became one of the United States’ first gay rights groups. Three years after the group was founded, the FBI launched an investigation into the Mattachine, which lasted for another three years, details of which can be found on the FBI Vault. Off the back of the Mattachine investigation, queer bars and taverns became their focal point. Following World War II, the police and the military worked together to target the influx of queer people in cities, most of whom could be found hiding in one of these spaces—a place where they could formulate ways to resist the police who continuously raided their hiding space and arrested them, and often using violence.

For the past few decades, this is the appearance that the police have been actively trying to counter: The image of tyranny; of a barnstorming, unruly, conservative, fascist, violent, abusive, bellicose force—the police of the past, so they say. An image that apologies and displays of purported alliance at Pride attempt to skirt. “Histories of homophobic police violence can be used strategically to fortify a positive police image among LGBT people and the wider community,” Emma K. Russell writes in Fair Cop: Queer histories, affect and police image work in Pride March, “Police participation in Pride March is positioned in opposition to past practices and thereby constructed as modern, adaptive and tolerant.”

The police of today want the public to believe there’s a historical discontinuity between their past and present: “We were bad then, we are good now.” And as the most visible, yet the most insular of all the public services, the police have been effectively able to shape their public narrative. Since federations have consistently used threats of libel in order to keep bad press and acts of police deviance out of the news, the press has almost always worked to fortify the police image. And since they’ve been given a protected insularity, the police are able to alter their public image rapidly. “Police image is constantly negotiated,” Victoria Sentas writes in Traces of Terror.

Police are able to alter their public image rapidly

The police went through their most radical rebranding towards the end of the 1980s, as they actively sought to employ gay and lesbian officers for the first time—in what was originally known as the “sissification” of the police force. One of the main reasons for doing so, according to Police Psychology in the 21st Century, was so they could reap the advantages of diversity. Following requests from district leaders, the New York Police Department assigned one of their first lesbian officers to beat patrol a particularly gay area of the city. As policing became more community-led, and with the inclusion of gay and lesbian officers into the force, the police embarked on a narrative of humanization—giving them easier access to queer, urban spaces, as well as the opportunity to regulate queerness itself. Just as they intended, the histories of radical, anti-carceral queer activism were subsumed.

But from the 1990s onward, the purpose of Pride was significantly diluted. As predominantly white and upper-class-led organizations focused their energies on hate crime legislation and the right for queers to marry, they pursued a highly visible, well-funded agenda that pandered to the state. Corporations took advantage of this new direction, and have since used the annual event as an opportunity to repurpose queer people as marketable consumers instead of a political force. As the memory of Pride’s riot origins continued to fade, and white gays simultaneously gained greater access to cultural capital, the police took advantage of these new conditions too, in order to divorce themselves from the macho image of their past.

Towards the end of the ’90s, as white, affluent gay men and lesbians were empowered into electoral politics, police began coming out to their peers. Soon after, gay and lesbian members of the force organized amongst themselves, and began petitioning for their right to march in Pride parades while wearing uniforms. The UK’s Gay Police Alliance, which was founded in 1990, was one of the first examples of a national gay police network. In 2003, when British police were first accepted into Pride parades, any skepticism they might have received paled in comparison to the enormous applause. In the lead-up to this so-called milestone, promotional leaflets around the world invited LGBTQ people to be “a part of history” by marching alongside them. In recent years, the police have continued to use Pride as a site from which to project the same message—that, by emblazoning their vehicles with rainbows and by visibly associating with (rich, white, cis) gays, they must be on the right side of history.

For the first time in several decades, the mainstream has looked upon these acts of police co-option with skepticism. Abolitionist discourse has inched closer to the center, and Pride events around the world—including in Charlotte, North Carolina—have banned police and agents of law enforcement from their events.

The Pride of the past two decades—which facilitated the collaboration between the police and affluent, white gays—has been deadly. While queer people of color have been excluded from organizing Pride, the union between police and white, cis Pride organizers has further marginalized the most vulnerable in the community, all while intensifying a criminal system that targets Black queer and trans people. From here on out, Pride must be reformed. The police cannot be allowed to use it as a decoy for their brutality any longer.

Emma Madden has written about gay stuff; music, and other pop culture for Pitchfork, The Ringer, and Entertainment Weekly. She lives in Brighton, U.K., and thinks that doggies are great.

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