The year is 1981. The Toronto Police Services, under Operation Soap, raided four gay bathhouses throughout Toronto. More than 300 men were arrested in the second largest mass arrest in Canadian history at the time. Gay and lesbian bathhouses had been raided before, but something about this one felt different. Peoples’ anger at the injustice of being criminalized by police for their sexuality had reached a boiling point.
The next day, 3,000 protestors took to the streets, bearing signs that read “Enough Is Enough, Stop Police Violence.” Also around this time, committees like GLARE (Gays and Lesbians Against the Right Everywhere) were formed.
Perhaps in that moment, the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City—a series of protests against police brutality in the LGBTQ community, widely considered the impetus behind LGBTQ resistance around the globe—was on the minds of the protestors.
These acts of protest were created out of the idea that people should not have to live in fear for who they are. That idea transformed into a vision as more people adopted the call to action. Today, there are Pride Parades all over the world, from Dryden, Ont. to São Paulo, Brazil.
The first Pride Parade in Toronto was on Canada Day in 1984, and the raids three years earlier fueled the momentum to lobby and protest for an annual, officially recognized celebration. Before the parade, LGBTQ organizers started hosting their own picnics, parties and community gatherings, and called these festivities “Pride Week” (which was not officially recognized by the City of Toronto until 1991). Toronto Pride, now shaped by corporate sponsors, as well as city funding and heavy police participation, has strayed farther and farther away from the margins that birthed it in the first place.
To some, this is progress.
But to me, and to many in this generation of queer and trans people, this feels like a betrayal. Pride is as personal as it is political. It is where those who have been abandoned by family and greater society go to feel a sense of community, normalcy and permission to unapologetically be who they are. As a teenager at my very first Pride, I was swept off my feet by an overwhelming sense of belonging. That abruptly ended when I was accosted by police—who challenged my presence—while walking with friends. Inclusion and freedom from fear, core values actualized during those first acts of protest decades ago, are what many of us still need Pride to represent.
Decades later, Pride isn’t just heavily policed throughout Pride Week—last year alone there were 13 different police floats in the Pride Parade.
That’s what prompted me—and other members of the Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter—to do the unthinkable: bring last year’s Toronto Pride Parade, and the thousands of people present, to a complete halt.
But first, a little background.
When I co-founded BLMTO back in 2014, none of us knew just how big it would become.
The movement became official for us after we issued a call to action that brought out more than 3,000 people on a chilly November night in 2014 to protest the deaths of Mike Brown, a Black teenager from Ferguson, M.O., and Jermaine Carby, a 33-year-old old Black man killed in Brampton, Ont., several minutes from his home.
When Pride Toronto asked us to be the Honoured Group in the parade last year, we immediately reached out to Black and racialized LGBTQ communities to determine how we could use this platform honourably. It became clear to us that previous efforts to make Pride more inclusive had failed, and they now looked to us for support.
The list of demands came first. They were ambitious, but so are we. As an organizer, you learn pretty early on that the demands themselves are as important as the process to achieve them. After hours and hours of deliberation, we finally had a plan. We would halt the Parade for as long as it took to get our demands signed by the then-director of Pride Toronto.
Still, on the day of, my heartbeat felt louder than the speakers on our float. As we got into formation, adorned in black and gold costume, cloaked by brightly coloured smoke screens we planted, police quickly surrounded our group as they moved to block the intersection. The Prime Minister’s float was just behind ours. For several minutes, there was chaos and confusion. We took the mic, picked up bullhorns and everything fell into place. We were cheered and jeered, surrounded by friends in our inner circle and angry people outside of it. Within a very tense 20 minutes, the director signed off on our demands. Relieved, surprised and triumphant, we marched on. It felt like one of the most powerful things I would ever do.
All of our demands, ranging from Pride organizing a town hall to hear from marginalized people and ensuring American Sign Language was part of every stage, to the removal of police floats and booths during the Parade, have been met. Pride Toronto’s membership, board and the hiring of its first ever Black woman executive director have all been shaped by that action. More people have a seat at the table.
From Halifax, where police have opted out of Pride amidst heated debates, to Vancouver, where police participation is conditional, to this year’s #NoJusticeNoPride action in Washington, DC., change is banging on the doors of the status quo.
Prides across North America are being forced to contend with something society at large often would rather not see: race.
The confusion I have encountered on what race has to do with Pride is alarming. I cannot change my skin colour any more than I can change my sexuality. Yet, when Black Lives Matter was invited to multiple Pride festivities last year across North America, there was pushback largely from white gay men, and even white people outside of the LGBTQ community, despite the sexuality and gender diversity of our chapters.
People of colour have not felt included in Pride for a number of years; in the last several years that I have attended membership meetings, it has been overwhelmingly gay white men, reflected in a majority white board, staff and director of Pride. Most recently, white, straight, cisgender male City officials, angered by our action, have tried to defund Pride in retaliation.
Pride has needed a paradigm shift led by dreamers for some time.
We must be the generation that confronts racism and finds the courage necessary to keep the tradition of resistance that Pride started decades ago. The audacity to start a riot, first at Stonewall and then in Toronto, which let to the creation of Pride—as well as the audaciousness of halting the parade—are steps out of the status quo towards a liberation that is as real as those who believe in it.
We have to imagine as if the impossible were possible.
I imagine a future for Pride where people of colour, Black people, the disabled, women and trans people are equal partners. I imagine a future for Pride that is courageous in the face of racism, of bigotry, a Pride that may not have as much money, but has much more heart.
Pride is evolving; our work is to evolve with it.