Image: YouTube/Track Two -- Enough is Enough (Documentary on 1981 Bath house rai

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The police have no place in the Pride parades of the nation. This is a hotly contested proposition ever since Black Lives Matter brought Toronto’s Pride parade to a halt to draw attention to the racism within LGBTQ communities and to demand no more police presence in the parade.

As someone who teaches the history of sexuality in Canada, I’ve been especially interested to watch how activists and their detractors have mobilized two competing versions of the queer history of policing in Canada. What are they, and who’s really got history on their side?

Those who argue for allowing the police — and, like BLMTO, I’m referring to police organizations, not individual queer police officers — to participate in Pride is that it somehow creates better understanding and improved police relations with queer communities. They point to the supposed improvement in policing, particularly since the 1981 Toronto bathhouse raids and the massive pushback against police they inspired.

But I don’t see it. Such an “it gets better” understanding of Canada’s queer past is not supported by the historical evidence. Here is a very partial list of police actions against queer communities after 1981:

  • 1987-1992/3: Police lay obscenity charges against queer publications, from the The Joy of Gay Sex to the lesbian magazine Bad Attitude, and the bookstores that sell the material, from Toronto’s Glad Day to Little Sister’s in Vancouver.
  • 1990: Montreal police bust the Sex Garage, a popular queer party, and arrest 48 people in the subsequent protest.
  • 1994/1995: Julian Fantino’s fabricated kiddie-porn panic in London, Ontario results in over 500 charges.
  • 1996: Police raid Remington’s, a Toronto gay strip club, and lay charges against 19 staff, dancers, and customers
  • 1999: Police raid the Bijoux, a gay porn bar in Toronto, and 19 patrons are arrested for committing “indecent acts.”
  • April 2000: Police visit the Barn and lay charges against members of Totally Naked Toronto, a men’s nudist group.
  • Sept 2000: Police raid the Pussy Palace, a women’s night at the Club Baths.
  • November 2000: Police visit the Toolbox, an S/M bar, and lay charges related to liquor license infractions during a naked-night party.
  • Dec 2002: Police raid Goliath’s, a bathhouse in Calgary, arresting 15 men.
  • Aug 2004: Police raid the Warehouse, Hamilton’s bathhouse, and arrest two men for committing “indecent acts.”

And the list goes on. What it reveals is that in the decades following Trudeau’s 1969 decriminalization of homosexuality, which allowed for a limited legal zone of toleration — keep it in the privacy of your bedroom, be over 21, and make sure there are only two of you present — what we’ve seen is an ongoing policing of queer sex in the so-called public sphere: bars, bookstores, backrooms and bathhouses.

Those who argue for the inclusion of police forces as Pride participants ignore how policing tends to target those whose sex lives fall outside Trudeau’s charmed circle of privatized, monogamous homosexuality, as the above list makes abundantly clear. I’m talking about the sex workers, the porn users, the bathhouse frequenters, the sex-party goers, the nudists, the strippers. And we should note how the most marginalized and policed of these folks — sex workers, for instance — are often people of colour and transgendered.

Yet this history hasn’t figured in the current debate over Pride and policing. It’s as if many queer people in Canada, perhaps especially white queer people, have forgotten even their most recent past. It’s why during their demonstration BLMTO shouted out to remind us that “We fought for you. We threw bricks for you. We got locked up for you. We made Pride political….Don’t you ever forget your queer histories. Don’t you ever forget who made this possible.”

There is no historical evidence to support the notion that inviting the police to “sit with us” (Pride’s thoroughly anodyne slogan) creates better policing. Such a belief is based on the idea that the problem is simply one of ignorance and bad attitudes among the police, and that if we just let them join the parade, they’ll be educated and sensitized and ultimately nicer to us.

But this is not about an individual’s attitudes. It’s about an institution with systemic practices, past and present. Then as now, the only thing that has forced change in police practice is the collective resistance of queer communities — just like we witnessed with Black Lives Matter at Pride.

Steven Maynard, a long-time queer activist, teaches the history of sexuality at Queen’s University.

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Image: YouTube/Track Two — Enough is Enough (Documentary on 1981 Bath house raids in Toronto)