When I approached writing this column, I didn’t know how I felt about the organizers of New York City’s Pride banning queer NYC police and other law enforcement from Pride events this year. To be honest, it made me feel terribly sad. Then, I spoke frankly with both sides about this decision, and my sadness paled in comparison to the raw emotion around this issue.
During the last year, I’ve written several columns about Black Lives Matter, the George Floyd trial, an Oscar-winning film about a Black man’s futile attempt to escape the bullets of a white police officer, about the fragility of the trans community, and the thrashing violence they continue to endure. I had a gut-wrenching conversation with the sister of Isaiah Brown, a gay Black man in Virginia who was shot 10 times by a police officer, and still clings to life.
Despite all of this, I will never know the pain that a Black person, or a transgender individual, endures as the result of overreach by police officers, but through my writing, I’ve come to understand that the pain is immensely palpable.
There is also a gap in the lack of understanding of the situation, and I believe that causes advocates on both sides to sometimes go to extremes. Emotions run very deep. We can't get rid of police departments without an agreed-upon, alternative plan for public safety. And not all cops are bad, in fact most of them are good; however, we can’t sit idly by and let public officials do nothing about systematic racism within America’s law enforcement and justice system.
That’s why we have to hope that local, state, and federal legislatures and the U.S. Justice Department, as well as police associations all across the country really take the necessary steps to begin to plug this problem. It’s a huge problem. Bigger than any of us can imagine, and it is an issue that unfortunately divides, because it truly is a life and death matter.
The New York Times, in an editorial, said the decision was wrong, and the pushback on their opinion was swift and harsh mixed with some support. I had to dig deeper.
I spoke candidly to Andre Thomas, a gay Black man who is co-chair of Heritage of Pride, the organizers of NYC Pride events. And, I also reached out to Ana Arboleda, a lesbian Latina, and vice president of the NYC Gay Officers Action League (GOAL), whose members were banned from Pride events through 2025.
First to Thomas, and why make this decision now?
“This conversation has been happening for many years,” Thomas said prior to my phone call with Arboleda. “This goes all the way back to the reaction to the police at Stonewall in 1969, right up to last year’s recognition of the anniversary of Stonewall, when our community endured excessive force by police who, among other things, used pepper spray on LGBTQ protestors. All of us were also marching in the spirit and in the moment for what happened to George Floyd the month before. There was a lack of accountability and transparency on the part of the NYPD for what happened, and why protestors were assaulted.”
As a result, Heritage NYC felt they needed to hold the police to task for their actions. “We held town halls with our community, engaged our councils and activists to help shape our frame of response, which also took into account all that is going on in the world right now, specifically with the continuation of police brutality in the country toward people of color and transgender people of color. We needed to take a strong stand and make a strong statement,” Thomas explained.
And for Heritage, it was all about making sure that all of the events’ participants felt safe and secure. “They count on us to feel safe, and if they can’t feel safe and they feel unwelcomed, they either won’t attend, or for those that do, the experience becomes far less enjoyable. For our committee, ensuring their safety was an absolute must.”
Thomas added that the steps being taken by the organization are meant to challenge law enforcement to acknowledge their harm and to correct course moving forward, in hopes of making an impactful change.
In 2025, law enforcement participation will be reviewed by the Community Relations and Diversity, Accessibility, and Inclusion committees, as well as the Executive Board of Heritage. In the meantime, NYC Pride will transition to providing increased community-based security and first responders, while simultaneously taking steps to reduce NYPD presence at events.
I asked Thomas if Heritage had reached out to GOAL to let them know about these measures, and that they were at risk of losing their spot in Pride events this year? “We sent several requests to the NYPD about making changes to ensure safety and transparency and to get answers to our concerns, and what we got was a public statement that didn’t go far enough. We then reached out to GOAL a few weeks ago and asked that they be an intermediary for us to the NYPD to help repair the relationship. We didn’t get assurances for change from the NYPD, and so we made our decision. And by the way, it shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise since other cities have prohibited uniformed officers, including Minneapolis and Toronto.”
Has Heritage prohibited any other groups from the parade this year? “We haven’t, but that being said, the events this year are most likely to be scaled down because of the pandemic, so at this point most of our plans are still virtual and limited,” enlightened Thomas. “We definitely won’t reach the scale of our prior marches. Our hope is that with this decision, we have a year to work with GOAL and the NYPD. Hopefully, our 2022 parade and events will be back to normal for all of us.
“We are an organization that is continually open to dialogue, and our aim is to hopefully find a way for uniformed officers to be back in the fold, but the onus is on them, and the leadership of the NYPD to do the actual work of making changes that guarantee the rights of Blacks, people of color, and transgender people. Make real change instead of putting out statements.”
According to Thomas, these changes are the next frontier for the LGBTQ+ community. “We conquered gay marriage, and now we must make sure that everyone benefits from fair and effective law and justice systems that guarantees civil rights for everyone and doesn’t discriminate.
“There needs to be more education and a better understanding of what we’re up against. Talk to any person of color about their interaction with police, and they all say the same thing. And talk to anyone who stood in front of the Stonewall last year trying to get people to pay attention, and who ended up being victims of overzealous police. Frankly, if that overreach by police officers didn’t happen last year, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
My conversation shifted to Arboleda who was very blunt and to the point about the reaction to the ban. “It’s just shameful on so many levels,” she held. “First, regardless of who you are, the NYPD provides security for every single large event held in the city, including the St. Patrick’s Day, Columbus Day, and the Thanksgiving Day parades, and any other large scale event, so you can’t just simply remove police officers. They are an integral part of safety for this city.
“But, more personally we are being excluded simply because of our profession, and that is just wrong,” Arbodela continued. “There are bad apples in every single company, and every entity. We are gay, we are just like [Heritage]. We are all the same. We are all part of the LGBTQ+ community. How can you exclude and marginalize us simply based on the profession we have chosen? How can you say no to us for what we do for a living that allows us to survive and take care of our families?”
Arbodela claims that Heritage did reach out a few weeks ago, but that they did not notify GOAL directly once the decision had been made to ban the organization and limit the NYPD presence. “They did reach out about their outreach to the NYPD, and we were told that this didn’t affect us. Then, to be excluded, when we were originally told that we wouldn’t be. It’s just baffling and so discriminatory,” claimed Arbodela.
For Arbodela, this entire episode has been personally heartbreaking. “I understand discrimination as a Latina gay woman, so that’s what I don’t understand about this. As a person of color, as are many, many members of our organization, we want the same thing too. We want a law enforcement community that treats everyone without regard to race, or sexuality or gender identity. We have many Black gay men, women of color who are lesbians, we have trans people of color. We have everyone under the rainbow. How can they all be excluded because of the behavior of others?”
More confusing for Arbodela is the fact that Heritage along with other LGBTQ+ groups and organizations have long worked with GOAL to open a dialogue with law enforcement and to ensure better recognition and working conditions for LGBTQ individuals within the NYPD. “We have done so much work together with the aim of always making things better for our community. So, why at this critical juncture, do you just cut us off?”
Regardless, Arbodela said that GOAL is open to dialogue with Heritage in order to rectify this situation. “It bears repeating, we are all the same as LGBTQ individuals, and we are all fighting for the same causes. We are all minorities as gay, lesbian, trans and queer, we have all felt the horrible effects of being marginalized, and we want equal protection under the law. Why shouldn’t we all work together to achieve what we all want together? And virtually all of us are good, honest, hardworking law enforcement officers whose main goal is to protect our community and make it better since we are part of the community too.”
For Arbodela, this also affects a very impressionable part of the entire community. “If we are going to entrust the next generation with making the consequential changes we need, then they need to see law enforcement being out and proud. We fought hard for recognition, and I know that when we march, children and young adults look at us and say, ‘Wow, I can do that.’ What kind of message does it send to them when they don’t see us because we are being excluded?”
There it is. Both sides. Remember when I said I didn’t know how I felt about this decision? Well, I am probably further from a resolution than when I started writing this piece. When I hung up with Thomas, I said, “he’s right, and he made good points. When I hung up from Arbodela, I said, “she’s right, and she made good points.” How’s that for being definitive?
Former President Jimmy Carter, one of the world’s greatest mediators, once said, “Unless both sides win, no agreement can be permanent.” How do we find a way where both sides win in this situation?
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.