Police at Pride: A Paradox

At the Christopher Street Pride Parade in 1973, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera marched with their group, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), and were invited to speak as leaders of gay liberation. However when Sylvia Rivera was introduced to speak, she was met with protest that left her with only one choice – yell over their outcry. “Y’all better quiet down. I’ve been tryin’ to get up here all day, for your gay brothers, and your gay sisters, in jail! They write me, every motherfuckin’ week! And ask! For your help!” screamed Sylvia Rivera to an audience of gays swearing at her to get off the stage, “And y’all don’t do a goddamn thing for them. Have you ever been beaten up? Or raped? In jail? Now think about it.”

Four years prior, the cops outside Stonewall Inn were interrupted with a rain of pennies, nickels, and dimes. “The payoff. That was the payoff,” Sylvia Rivera spoke of how excited the crowd felt to put their foot down against the police in an interview in 1989.

Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, Rivera’s colleague and confidant, set an example of resistance not only during the Stonewall Riots of June 1969, but led lifetimes of activism. They were transgender women of color, sex workers, community organizers, and they demanded rights in the name of Gay Power. STAR had a mission of providing food and shelter to homeless queer youth. The political consciousness of these women was necessary for survival; transgender women of color, especially sex workers, have been particularly vulnerable to bigoted violence and murder throughout American history. Prior to the 1960s, anti-sodomy laws in every state made sexual relationships between same-sex people a felony nationwide. These laws essentially made being gay or transgender illegal, indicated in the rampant policing of LGBTQ+ communities. This especially affected queer people of color, who were already targeted by the police for being black or brown. Although states started to adjust their legal classification of illicit sex in 1962, anti-sodomy laws were not fully overturned until 2003.

The marginalized queer people of Greenwich Village were no strangers to harassment when the cops showed up at Stonewall on the night of June 27, 1969. The raid of the Inn was routine, but not accepted as activists like Rivera or Johnson had begun to show signs of resistance all over the country. Many call Stonewall the start of the gay liberation movement, but members of the community see Stonewall as an example of decades of queer struggle and resilience. One participant in the protests, Raymond Castro, said he never “thought of [Stonewall] being a turning point. All I know is enough was enough. You had to fight for your rights. And I’m happy to say whatever happened that night, I was part of it.”


It was past midnight, and police arrived outside Stonewall Inn, blocking the gay and trans customers inside. One protestor called it “a hostage situation,” as many were carted off to police vans in handcuffs — the charges unclear, but the intention crystal. Sylvia Rivera recounted that once the nickels started flying, the true demonstration began. “It was so beautiful…” she said. Many remember Marsha P. Johnson as throwing the first (and the image seems to vary) brick, or bottle, or a handbag full of bricks, at the police, which amped up the protest into a full riot. Regardless of what was physically in her hands, Marsha’s resistance that night was against racism, transphobia and the criminalization of the LGBTQ+ community and sex workers. Ultimately, the Stonewall Riots were a protest of police brutality, an issue still faced daily by minority people in places like San Francisco.

So how is it that the same women trying to save their community from such routine police harassment would be booed off the stage at an event birthed of their movement? The answer is in the absence of people of color in shows about gay people, the absence of transgender actors in movies about transgender people, the controversial 2015 movie “Stonewall” that starred a white, cis gay man; a deep white-washed psychology had already been embedded into gay pride that excluded nearly everyone. Those imprisoned following Stonewall had been forgotten in the dialogue of gay rights. A movement started by transgender women and people of color had dissolved into an exclusionary definition of how to be gay and successful in society. “I have been beaten, I have had my nose broken, I have been thrown in jail, I have lost my job, I have lost my apartment for gay liberation, and you all treat me this way?” Sylvia tells the audience she believes in gay power, but not only for the white upper class. The white queer community however, wanted to advance without people like Rivera.

Now Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera are the godmothers of Pride; their faces appear most at this time of year. But there is little dialogue about the reality of the struggle these women had to go through for liberation. Somehow, we see Stonewall as the first Pride, but is the Pride Parade at all reflective of the riots and what their leaders intended? To act as though the Stonewall Riots bear any resemblance to the festival outside of City Hall attended by over a million is to ignore the resilience displayed by marginalized people prior, in the decades since, and the decades to come. If the origin of Pride is in the actions of people harassed by police and jailed for their sexualities, genders, and occupations, then the heightened police presence at Pride is contrary to the reality of gay liberation and the story of Pride is not complete.

I spoke to someone who used to volunteer for public safety at the Pride parade, maintaining three teams that were responsible for crowd control and emergency response; they wished to be anonymous. They informed me that although it may seem like there is a larger police presence in recent years, it is only the visibility of officers that has increased, not necessarily quantity or safety.

After a series of shootings and other “threats” recently, security policy has been changing yearly. Following the devastating massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016, the city placed metal detectors at entrances to most of the Pride festivities for the first time. Multiple lawsuits resulting from shootings near or in San Francisco Pride events have been flowing in and out of Pride’s inbox: In 2014, a man from Los Angeles who was shot attempted to sue SF Pride for $10 million. They reached an undisclosed settlement but this was just one of many lawsuits pending. In 2016, a Beverly-Hills based law firm sued SF Pride and asked the block party portion be cancelled on behalf of those who were injured in 2013.  When I asked my contact about SF Pride’s response, they claimed they were replaced with a paid security team, even though the volunteer safety team felt fully equipped and trained to handle emergencies. My contact said that these changes in security were over liability issues, and when asked if this increased safety at all, they responded, “Not in any specific sense.” So, while threats increase along with police visibility, Pride is becoming more of an uncontainable block party in rainbow, no longer a display of resistance.

Police activity at Pride parades has been put up to question over the years. In 2016, Black Lives Matter Toronto halted their parade to demand in part that police not march in uniform at Pride. The city agreed, and the Toronto police force’s applications to Pride have been rejected two years in a row. However, in 2017, the New York Police Department invited the Toronto PD to march in their parade. This was seen as a slap to the face by much of the black or brown LGBTQ+ community, and articulated the divide over what Pride and the police really represent.

Queer and transgender Americans have historically been mistreated by the police, particularly if they are black or brown. When the history of people of color is erased from LGBTQ+ history, we are left with a Pride Parade stuffed with cops, corporations, and dominant narrative. Stonewall was a beautiful demonstration against hate and privilege, but it did not give us permission to ignore the homophobia and cissexism ingrained into our culture. So although dangerous things may happen at Pride that call for police interaction, there should be a way we can celebrate heroes like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera where the cops don’t have a say.