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Fellow Gay White Men: Our Experience With Police Isn't The Norm

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toronto trans march 2016
(Photo: Pride Toronto)

Dear fellow gay white men of Canada,

Since Black Lives Matter Toronto's sit-in during Pride 2016, many of you have shown woeful levels of misunderstanding of where our community as a whole sits with the police. I've heard several of you say that the police don't pose a threat to LGBT people, because we've made "progress."

"The bathhouse raids were 35 years ago. Everything is fine now between LGBT people and the police!" is how the argument goes, as if conflict between police and LGBT people is a thing of the past. What you mean to say is that your battle for your rights (which did not include an agenda for LGBT people of colour) was already hard fought decades ago.

During the events that unfolded since Pride (and more recently, at the Pride town hall in August 2016 and following Pride Toronto's response), gay white men (GWM) have been expressing that "they" (Black Lives Matter) ruined "our" parade. GWM even went as far as to send the group death threats.

This creates an "us versus them" hostility which is undeserved, considering BLM chapters are founded mainly by queer and trans people, and eight of their nine demands (which have since become controversial) were all about restoring and funding spaces during Pride for queer and trans youth. It should also go without saying that huge swaths of the LGBT community are also black people.

But let's actually set the BLMTO/Pride Toronto conflict aside for a moment, since you can't be blamed for misunderstanding it if there aren't some fundamental truths we get out of the way first. Let's take a closer look at the false assertion that in 2016, everything's all good between the police and the LGBT community in Canada.

Those of you who have fought for our rights for decades have worked hard. But that freedom is yet to be available to all of our friends in the rainbow. It seems that when LGBT people of colour try to fight to secure these same, deserved enjoyments, some of you feel inconvenienced. Understand that these are not an attack on your past accomplishments or your own freedom -- others in our community are struggling and their protest finally means they refuse to be silenced. It is another monumental moment in our history.

Those of us who have only ever had positive (or at least fair) interactions with police in recent times have difficulty understanding just how difficult and dangerous police interactions are for LGBT people of colour. "Just because it doesn't make Channel 9 News doesn't mean it's not going on," says Max Mohenu, a nonbinary trans person. Mohenu writes about culture, sexuality and race for VICE Canada.

francis kiromera
Francis Kiromera.

Francis Loïc Kiromera is a young professional who works in policy. He also hosted the Blockorama stage at Toronto Pride this year. Kiromera believes a lot of white gay men have racial blind spots when it comes to police brutality. "If you only are interacting with a certain type of person or if you're not interacting with people who have had these types of experiences with cops, you're not gonna be as critical," he says. "I've been carded in Toronto and I'm not even on the fringes of society by any means. Still, I've had that experience just because of the colour of my skin."

Random police stops based on suspicion (carding) still disproportionately affect black people in Toronto, where 8.4 per cent of the city's population is black but the number of carded young black men between 2008 and 2011 was 3.4 times higher than that.

Black issues and women's issues are issues faced by the LGBT community.

Howard Sapers, correctional investigator for the federal government tabled a report in 2015 in the House of Commons where he found the black inmate population grew 69 per cent between 2005 and 2015.

Police interactions with people of colour are sometimes needlessly fatal in Canada as well. Andrew Loku and Jermaine Carby are two high-profile examples of black people killed during police interactions in recent years and Abdirahman Abdi, a Somali-Canadian man, was beaten to death while being arrested in Ottawa last month.

keira grant
Keira Grant (Photo: Kanchan Maharaj)

Women are also excluded from our narrow view of police violence. A less widely known bathhouse raid took place at Pussy Palace, a women-only bathhouse event, in September 2000. Keira Grant, a Toronto health researcher and a queer black woman, was there. "It was very, very clear from the demeanor of the officers that they were not concerned about any real meaningful crime or safety issues," she says. "They had simply heard that this was going to be an opportunity to ogle scantily clad women."

Grant said the Pussy Palace raids "had a lasting effect on a lot of women in the community feeling like the police were not really somewhere that we can turn if we need help with regards to sexual violence or any other issues that might affect us as queer women."

"The cops perpetrated a lot of sexual violence by being there," she added.

You don't get to use the acronym "LGBT" without truly taking on the issues of every letter and colour.

A poll, conducted by Ipsos Reid for Global News, found 71 per cent of all Canadian women surveyed said reporting a sexual assault to police was a negative experience. Thirty-nine per cent said the reporting process left them "devastated."

The same study found rampant victim blaming and attempts to coerce victims out of reporting sexual assaults by Canadian police. Between 2005 and 2015, Global News found only 2.9 per cent of Vancouver sexual assault reports resulted in a conviction.

So what does any of this have to do with you? It's simple. The LGBT community includes black people and women, so black issues and women's issues are issues faced by the LGBT community. You don't get to use the acronym "LGBT" without truly taking on the issues of every letter and colour. A conversation about LGBT issues devoid of anti-racist and anti-sexist values is impossible. Put bluntly, the LGBT community is not just white, gay men.

max mohenu
Max Mohenu.

And what about our trans community?

Mohenu says police make them nervous. "The more that I see people of colour being gunned down for no reason, it doesn't instill any sort of confidence in me," they say. Mohenu's feelings are not unique. The relationship between police and trans people (trans people of colour especially) is undeniably terrible.

"Trans women of colour are often profiled as sex-workers, drug addicts or just plain criminals," Princess Harmony Rodriguez wrote in a piece on called "Whose Lives Matter?: Trans Women of Color and Police Violence.

"Discrimination against transgender people in the workplace causes us to be unemployed or underemployed, so we have to turn to sex work," she says. When trans people are victims, "we're often the ones who end up getting arrested, injured or emotionally traumatized even in the process of asking for help," she adds.

This is only a fraction of the serious issues that our community faces. Next time you're about to say that everything is fine between the LGBT community and police, think about each letter of our acronym and the compounded racial realities many people in our community face. Think about the acts of civil disobedience that led to your unburdening from police oppression.

Ray Charles sang that "None of us are free when one of us are chained." If you use the term LGBT to sound inclusive but aren't actually speaking with the entire community in mind, you might as well be honest about the fact that you're only concerned with problems that affect you personally.

People LOVE to throw around the word "community" -- how about actually taking everyone into account?

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