Hi, Jane. My name is Mark from New York City. I’m arguing with my friends, online with strangers, and just feeling internally conflicted about the New York City pride decision to not let LGBT officers march in the parade. And it’s drawn some condemnation from places like the New York Times. But I’ve also seen a lot of really passionate support for it from community activists. And I’m feeling torn, myself, because Stonewall was a riot against police raids and police brutality, which continues today. But I also refuse to believe that every single police officer is a bad person. And I think that there are good, decent LGBT police officers out there.
Today on The Argument, is it wrong to ban gay cops from marching in a Pride parade in uniform?
I’m Jane Coaston. And at my very first Pride parade in St. Louis, Missouri, I remember being struck by the sight of cops in uniforms, marching and holding hands with their partners, not just because they were cops, but because the idea of being a cop and being out was stunning to me at the time, that you could simultaneously hold two identities in public and everyone could know about both of them, and that could be OK.
But I also know that the origin story of Pride is a story of police brutality. The Compton’s Cafeteria Riots of 1966, the Stonewall uprising in June 1969, both were reactions to police violence against LGBT people, state violence against LGBT people. Last year, protesters said NYPD officers used pepper spray and shoved demonstrators at a Queer Liberation March in New York’s Washington Square Park. A year after, the agency apologized for the actions taken by officers at Stonewall 50 years earlier.
In response this year, NYC Pride and pride marches across the country have decided to bar uniformed officers from marching. Police officers are still welcome to participate, but not in uniform.
The decision drew cheers from some for making it a safer space for more people. But it drew criticism from others, including LGBT cops. And for me, it raised a larger question about what Pride is and who it’s for. For some people, Pride is a march welcome to everyone and anyone, regardless of politics or employment.
But for others, Pride is a movement and a protest against the power structures that have failed and continue to fail LGBT people, particularly trans people and people of color.
Today, I’m talking with representatives from the two groups who have clashed over New York’s Pride march. Andre Thomas is co-chair of NYC Pride, the group that decided uniformed officers could not participate. Brian Downey is a New York City police detective and President of GOAL, the Gay Officers Action League, an advocacy group that does sensitivity training for police recruits and community outreach, among other things.
For people who are not acquainted with New York City Pride, or who might be new to this particular issue, or who are not locked in to what Pride celebrations look like in New York, Andre, in May, your group announced that uniformed police officers would not be able to March in Pride until 2025. I want to know what went behind that decision. How did that decision happen?
This has been a conversation that’s been going on in many pride movements globally. Stonewall riots started as a protest against police brutality. Fast forward to 2019, the NYPD apologized for the events at Stonewall. But then last year, there were some interactions between protesters in Washington Square Park and the NYPD that happened on Pride Sunday. And so we took it upon ourselves to really listen to the community. And so the two main aspects we were looking at is, one, reducing visibility of the police.
Safety and security of our events is key. We know that we can’t not do in New York City, large-scale in size, without the NYPD presence. But definitely taking the visibility down to a certain degree, using more community affairs officers, using less of a militarized type looking response, that is something I think we are in good faith, and working with the NYPD, and the city towards. The other aspect is the uniformed police officers marching. That uniform, for the communities who are speaking to us, is a symbol. What it represents makes them feel unsafe and unwelcome. And for inclusion, we need to have everyone feel on the same page.
Brian, just to back us up a little bit, what is GOAL?
So the Gay Officers Action League was established formally in 1982. A big part of what we do is educating people. What we also do is we train police officers, criminal justice professionals in LGBTQIA-plus sensitivity and awareness. We also serve as policy advisors. Very oftentimes, we’re approached, hey, do you know anything about a policy for interactions with the trans community? Yes, as a matter of fact, we do. In 2012, the NYPD patrol guide was amended, in God knows how many places, to address things such as proper pronoun use, to address lodging.
This is where I think then, Brian, you’ve actually come around to what we’re saying. We’re saying, you acknowledge, that trans individuals, people of color, have had fraught relationships with the NYPD in treatment. And they are not just historical issues. They’re still current issues. The Walking While Trans law was just repealed in February. A trans person could be stopped by the police. And if the officer determined that they were not wearing the gender-appropriate attire, then they could be detained for that.
Brian, I went back and looked at the New York Daily News write up for July 6, 1969, following the raid at the Stonewall Inn. And the headline is, “Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees are Stinging Mad.” And it’s disgusting, almost humorously so, just so virulently homophobic, in a way that indicated that the authors of this piece knew that this was a community that they would never need to treat respectfully.
GOAL came up in the early 1980s, at a time where, for people outside of this community, that type of rhetoric was endemic, where homophobia, and transphobia, and bi-phobia were part and parlance and acceptable. Is that part of why it’s important for you and for other members of GOAL to be able to march in uniform, to show what has changed, even though there’s more work to do, that there has been so much change?
There has been a great deal of change. There hasn’t been enough change. I think that visibility is important because it does send a message to institutions and to people that there are folks that are fighting on the inside. When you put everybody in a t-shirt, that might as well be anybody walking down Fifth Avenue, not to mention the personal struggle of many people in the organization that have overcome a great deal of adversity in their lives to get to where they are right now.
Stumbling upon GOAL, for many people, is their coming out process. It was me for mine. I mean, 20 years ago, if you would have told me that I would have been in a Pride march, I would have laughed at you, because I was ashamed of myself. I look at my trajectory, my growth. And really being educated and taken under the wing of people that have gone before me has uplifted me and probably saved my life. You look at somebody like Anna Arboleda who was thrown out of our house as a high-schooler. Not only has she put herself through school, she’s come into the police department and she’s brought that struggle with her.
As a Sergeant now, she is a training person in Equal Employment Opportunity, in equity and inclusion. She’s helping shape department policies. She’s on the lieutenant’s list. I mean, she might be Chief Arboleda one day. And wouldn’t that be a great story?
And I understand the complexity of wearing a uniform. I served in the Marines for eight years, myself, under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. So I know what it’s like to live with that fear, because for me, that fear was I could go to jail and kicked out of the military if someone discovered my identity. But what we’re equating right now is a community who is struggling and their feelings of safety and being welcome versus the ability of GOAL to wear a uniform in a parade.
And so you have to figure out, what is more important to a movement, to Pride? What is the key to really making all of the community feel included? And we’re not saying GOAL can’t march. GOAL could literally wear polos that say, police against brutality. You could literally print a hundred of those, sell those for $25 a pop, and donate the proceeds to a Black trans organization. And everyone would love you for that. We’re asking for you to think about the communities who are affected now.
This actually gets to the big question that I have for both of you that I keep thinking about, is that this is not just a conversation about wearing a uniform in Pride or what that means. Because, Brian, I can say that the first Pride I went to was in St. Louis, Missouri in 2009. And you would meet people who had come from hundreds of miles away. This is 2009. And I think, for many people, you think of that as being — or I think of it as being — like 10 minutes ago.
But you would meet people who were like, no one knows I’m here. No one can ever know that I am at a Pride parade. And I remember seeing gay cops in uniform marching, gay cops with their partners, holding hands. And I felt normalized, in a sense that I had never really experienced. And I’m sure that that’s something that both of you have understood. But I think that this gets to this big question of what is Pride for right now? Is it a protest? Are we celebrating? Who is it for?
It can be both at the same time. We call it a march, not a parade like everybody does. We call it a march because it is. We still consider it a protest march. It has a celebratory aspect to it. But it is still a protest, in very many ways. One of our big events that we have at Pride is called the Dance on the Pier, Pride Island. And it’s 6,000 gay men dancing. But it was illegal for men to dance together. It’s the 35th anniversary. It was called a Dance in Protest.
When you have people who come from other countries who have come to New York City Pride and partake in events like that, being part of that celebration is a part of a protest. It is both things at the same time. The example I use is just a couple of years ago, Amber Hicks, who added the black and brown stripes to the rainbow flag, got death threats, and hate mail, and all sorts of vitriol. And now that flag’s the standard. You can’t not go and see a flag have those stripes and the trans colors represented.
Just the amount of anti-trans bells going on a day-to-day basis is just evidence that we’re not all the way there yet. And it’s unfortunate that a lot of the backlash, a lot of the really kind of violent messaging that we’ve received from the organization has come from white gay men. And that brings up issues of privilege that really speak to what’s going on in the community.
Brian, I want to put that question to you, of what is Pride for? What is it to you?
To me, interestingly enough, Pride has always been about liberation. You reflected on your first Pride. Mine was in 2009, wearing a police uniform. A lot of different emotions that day, there was some fear. Two very, very important parts of that day for me were — Michael Dye was a New York City police detective who, just a few weeks ago, succumbed to 9/11-related cancer. Michael kind of had his hand on my shoulder that whole morning, you know, you’re going to get through it.
I did think of going home a few times. I wasn’t really friends with him at the time, I knew that he was in GOAL, but John Hayes, who now is a Lieutenant in the New Jersey State Police — I don’t think that the New Jersey State Police uniform was something that I would consider socially progressive. In the back of my head that day as I’m looking over my right shoulder and I see John there with a Pride flag, I said to myself, well, if that guy is here and he’s going to be all right, chances are, I’m going to be all right.
But the greatest feeling of all was the liberation. And I don’t think for a minute that, at any time, I was somehow or in any way celebrating police pride. What was going through my head that day is 29 years on this Earth, ashamed. And it kind of felt like this great, big F-U moment to society, to everybody that was there, because I said, look, I’ve infiltrated this place. I’m here. I got here. I will make it my work to not leave people behind. I will make it my work to make it easier for other people.
And I’d like other people to have the experience that I have had, to kind of have their eyes opened to a world of advocacy, a world of trying to change systems and structures. So it is a sad moment for me. And again, Andre, I’m not discounting the things that you’ve heard —
But what you have to understand, Brian, is that me, as a Black man, I can’t take off my black skin. But you can take off your uniform. A trans person can’t take off who they are, that identity. Is it the uniform that makes you a police officer? Or is it the training, the experience, the knowledge, the camaraderie? What is that identity? I know the uniform is a part of that identity. But you’re not wearing a uniform right now. Are you still not a cop?
You’re talking about an identity. And for me, my gayness and my Blackness are parts of my identity that cannot be changed, and they’re the parts that are the most at conflict with each other, more often than not, because the larger part of the gay community has rejected, in many ways, my Blackness. And so when you talk about the issues that cops face with regard to visibility and being in uniform, I get it. I understand that. We’re talking about presenting you as police officers in a way that doesn’t trigger someone like myself.
Just last week, wearing my New York Pride shirt, going on the subway to an office, being approached by five cops, that fear anxiety that I had, right there and then. It’s the amount of experiences I’ve had walking through the city with my partner who’s white. And he’s gone up to a cop to just ask a question. And I’ve literally almost frozen in panic and in fear, and not because I’ve done anything wrong or anything like that. It’s because that is just where we are as a society.
It seems now that we’re having a conversation, nationally, about a lot of people who all want to go to Pride. But in some ways, is the conversation we’re having now the price of the success of the Pride movement, that everybody wants to take part in it? Corporations want to take part in it. The United States military, in many cases, wants to take part in it. Is this a sign that we’re winning, sort of winning? What does this mean?
It’s a at-what-cost are we winning? If we have progressed so far but we’re still leaving others behind, if LGBTQ people are six times more likely than the regular public to be stopped by police, what change have we actually made? Are we just celebrating, celebrating, and having a big party with glitter and sparkles every single year? Or are we actually advocating for change?
That is that inner conflict that is going on within moments. There have been reactionary pride marches to our traditional, mainstream march. The Queer Liberation March, for example, too, which is no police presence, no corporate presence, whatsoever, because there are individuals who have felt that the mainstream pride movements have left them behind and have gone away from their true roots.
Pride events aren’t the only part of the Gay Officers Action League. And participating in them, honestly, I know that it’s a very passionate thing for a lot of people. But I don’t think that it’s the most important work we do. And I think that we do do other work, 365 days a year, including on Pride. Andre, I think there’s been a lot of time where you talked about problems. And I just would like an opportunity to talk about some of the solutions, because I feel that a lot of this has been concentrated or questions I always get are about the emotion of being there in uniform.
I want an opportunity to talk about what the organization does, which unfortunately, people still don’t know. And I don’t know how well versed you are in what we do.
Let me say, then, to that, so the police union, last year, endorsed Donald Trump. And the Black Officers Association came out against that. So there you have an organization in the NYPD who is minority-aligned who can make external statements that they feel doesn’t align with their mission and values. And that’s what we’re asking GOAL to do. You’re talking about internal work that GOAL is doing. But we’re asking, we’re holding GOAL accountable for the external-facing stuff.
OK, so let’s talk about some of the external-facing stuff. I mean, sure let’s take a look at Washington Square Park last year, because what I saw, with my eyes, were a 99 percent peaceful event. And what I saw 1 percent of, people that were there actively looking for a problem. And when they couldn’t find one, an individual decided they wanted to vandalize a piece of police equipment. Now, I have criticized the police department, a number of different ways, internally.
A lot of my work, Andre, is based upon credibility, OK? But when it comes to surrounding and cornering uniformed police officers, my credibility in going and hanging my hat on that, I’ve talked extensively about how I think it was a poor tactical decision. It’s not something I would encourage my members or peers in the criminal justice system to do.
Can I jump in here?
I want to zoom out a little bit from the specificity of what happened last year. I used to work with the Human Rights Campaign. I was a speechwriter at the Human Rights Campaign. And I focused mostly on marriage litigation. So I wrote speeches for Jim Obergefell, who was the plaintiff in Obergefell v. Hodges, the ultimate marriage decision. And I remember when we put out a statement after the death of Michael Brown. And we got some of the angriest emails we’ve ever gotten from HRC members with regard to, basically, stay in your lane.
I keep thinking about how there are so many instances in which LGBT people have been brought together, I would say, through the vise of oppression, where no one cared that you wanted to be a banker, you wanted to be a police officer, you wanted to protest against banks or police officers. So I wanted to think through — and there might not really be an answer to this — but Andre, do you still see us as a community or a movement when there are some people for whom oppression looks far more real and far more state violence-based, and there are some people for whom oppression looks very different?
And that I think is, in a way, what this issue has exposed, almost the kind of like dirty little secret of the gay community that we’re all not the same, that we’re all going through different experiences. And some experiences of oppression are life-threatening for some and some are casual, somebody didn’t like my picture on an app. And those different experiences are why we are here, for the individuals in our community who that oppression is a life and death situation or brings up those feelings of danger, of fear, of this can cause me to shut down, this makes me feel unwelcome.
That is who we point the direction to. And that is why the movement started, because we were all under the kind of that same oppression.
Right. There is something like, no matter what your politics are, somebody is trying to beat us up.
Exactly. And it’s like, no matter what, I mean, the anti-gay, anti-LGBT people all see us as the same, no matter what we are, no matter who we are. We’re all deviant to them, no matter what, no matter what we do. But within the community, itself, there are — I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that graphic of an iceberg with some gay white men at the top. And the bottom of the iceberg under the ocean, which is much larger, has a lot more members of the diverse community underneath it. And that’s kind of where we are right now as a movement. Some people have moved farther ahead. And we want to move all people ahead.
Brian, are we still, together, a community, a movement? What do you think?
I feel that there’s always been a movement. Who leads that movement, who’s been left behind, I think we have a good understanding of who’s been left behind. I know I do. I also run a very, very diverse organization, and again, with many people that have experiences different than mine. And I often use moments where people are exhibiting privilege within the organization or asking me why I said a certain thing.
And you kind of have to school them a little bit. And you say, well, do you know what it’s like to walk into a store and have everybody look at you like you’re going to rob the place? Do you know what it’s like to have people cross the street in front of you to avoid being on the same side of the street as you are? And until you walk in those shoes, maybe you should listen a little bit to those experiences and try and understand where people’s perspectives are and where they come from.
The movement still continues. I agree that we need to do more to uplift all voices within the community. And how we go about doing that looks very differently to a lot of people. But hopefully, we’re all moving towards the same goal.
And I just want to thank both of you because I know that this is a issue that involves real people, and real people who are multiple things — people who are gay, lesbian, queer police officers, and queer trans people of color, and people who have been subjected to police violence. So I just want to a second to appreciate both of you for doing this. I know that that was challenging.
Thank you and thank Andre.
There’s a lot to read about the history of Pride. I recommend the 2011 documentary, We Were Here, about the HIV/AIDS crisis in San Francisco. You can also listen to the podcast Making Gay History, which is an oral history about some of the leaders and forgotten champions of the movement. You can find links to all of these in our episode notes.
I also want to recommend that you read more about the Mattachine Society, which was one of the very first gay-rights organizations founded in the United States. It was founded in 1950, at a time when gays and lesbians were fired from federal employment, when gay people were believed to be threats to national security. The gay rights movement — and what we think of as the LGBT rights movement, more broadly — has been going on a lot longer than Stonewall or even Compton Cafeteria.
And I think sometimes we think of Pride and the fight over LGBT rights in America as being this very constricted moment that began on this specific day and reached the pinnacle with the Obergefell decision at the Supreme Court that brought marriage equality to all 50 states. But the movement goes a lot further back. And the movement, such as it exists now, has a lot further to go.
The Argument is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Phoebe Lett, Elisa Gutierrez, and Vishakha Darbha, edited by Allison Bruzek and Paula Szuchman with original music and sound design by Isaac Jones, fact-checking by Kate Sinclair, and audience strategy by Shannon Busta.