Black Lives Matter has reshaped what it means to be an ally

Even by the standards of a city council that specializes in ahistorical rhetoric, this week’s motion to support police participation in the Pride parade stands as singularly wild.

While it’s not especially surprising that two white councillors – Justin Di Ciano and Jon Burnside, the latter a former cop – saw fit to collapse a knotty discussion about Blackness, queerness and the politics of Pride into a misleading and unhelpful binary, the particular swagger with which they did so is impressive. 

“Since the inception of Toronto’s Pride Parade, the Toronto Police Service has worked tirelessly to promote a safe and inclusive atmosphere,” the motion proclaims in bold ignorance of the event’s origin as a response to the 1981 bathhouse raids.

Further, in an apparent reference to Black Lives Matter–Toronto’s demand that Pride remove police floats and booths from future events, they write that “Torontonians understand that discrimination ends when we move past exclusion and rejection of members within our society and embrace forgiveness dialogue [sic] and cooperation.” It’s as though the councillors have brought a three-week memory to a decades-old debate about the hierarchies of progress. But they’re not alone in this respect.

When BLM-TO stopped the July 3 parade for 30 minutes until Pride Toronto agreed to a list of (mostly uncontroversial) demands to make future festivals more inclusive, a remarkable number of people were surprised and upset that Pride’s “Honoured Group” would make use of that platform to engage in the kind of activism that had earned the group that designation in the first place. Wasn’t the recognition a show of support in itself?

Among the qualities that make BLM-TO an unusually effective advocacy group is that they are both wary and weary of gestures. Symbols can be powerful, but meaningful, long-lasting advancement requires action, follow-thorough and accountability. This is true not only of political change, but of the alliances necessary to achieve it.

Perhaps more radical and frightening for critics than the movement’s objectives is the self-reflection it demands from potential allies. 

In a culture that too often conflates sympathy with support, BLM makes clear that they are distinct. Professing to agree with the movement’s goals but not their means of attaining them underscores a mistaken belief that social progress is something the collective consciousness somehow wills into existence.

And just as Pride appeared to reach the pinnacle of mainstream acceptance – the prime minister of Canada marched this year, after all – BLM-TO forced the public at large to confront the critical question of who gets left behind once a battle is declared won.

Even a week and a half before the parade, the variously privileged elements of the queer community were detangled and re-tangled by what the Toronto police billed as their “historic acknowledgement” of the bathhouse raids.

“The 35th anniversary of the 1981 raids is a time that the Toronto Police Service expresses its regret for those very actions,” Chief Mark Saunders said at his annual Pride reception on June 22. “It is also an occasion to acknowledge the lessons learned about the risks of treating any part of Toronto’s many communities as not fully a part of society.”

The Toronto police very seldom admit to their own fallibility, so the statement wasn’t nothing. On the other hand, what exactly was it?

Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam – who helped negotiate the federal government’s 2006 apology and redress for the Chinese head tax – was incensed.

“I don’t believe it even goes close to being enough to healing the relationship with the police,” said the Ward 27 (Toronto Centre-Rosedale) representative and only openly queer member of council, who was notably absent from the Saunders event. 

Wong-Tam took issue with the wishy-washy language that she believed failed to convey remorse and take responsibility for the lives destroyed by the raids, as well as a lack of restitution and demonstrated change.

“There are communities today that are still targeted [by police]: racialized communities, Black communities, Indigenous communities, sex-worker communities,” she said. Pride is “a convenient vehicle to hide under the rainbow tent, without doing the deep, systematic reform work.”

She compared it to how corporations that invest in countries that actively persecute gay people are more than happy to wrap themselves in the rainbow flag come Pride.

Speaking to NOW a few days after the chief’s reception, BLM-TO co-founder Rodney Diverlus is similarly critical and even prophetic. 

“It says a lot about the ways that the Toronto police are utilizing the mainstream queer community to pit themselves against other communities,” he says. 

Indeed, in a July 8 letter to his officers (obtained and published online by Newstalk 1010), Chief Saunders wrote, “There are clearly people in this city who want to drive a wedge between the TPS and the LGBTQ communities. They will not succeed. It must be a source of great anger to them that the TPS has made enormous strides in recent years to enhance and develop our relationship with those communities.”

It reads as though Saunders were trying to tell queer people that BLM isn’t their friend, but police are – which isn’t the worst strategy, since there are more than a few folks, including former activists, who seem inclined to agree. 

But in so doing, long-time divisions in the queer community have been exposed and new rifts have been opened. Some people feel they’ve achieved all that they set out to achieve with the gay movement, whereas others are uncomfortable celebrating liberation until it extends to everyone.

As the group is quick to point out, Black Lives Matter is a movement led by queer and trans people, both locally and internationally – and, as Diverlus says, “When we talk about police brutality, when we talk about police violence, when we talk about state-produced violence, those are queer issues as well. Those should not be siloed in to just issues of race that don’t actually intersect with queerness, when we as LGBT Black folks are telling you that our bodies are often victimized by the state and police. We’re saying that this should be an issue that should be discussed at Pride.”

As recently as 2013, for example, trans activists still had to fight – against Pride, against the city and against the police – for permission to take the Trans March down Yonge. There were official concerns about the effect the event, held on the Friday evening of the climactic Pride weekend, would have on car traffic. 

But despite dictates that the march head down Church, activists insisted it deserved the same respect as the Dyke March and Pride parade (both always on Yonge) and took the street anyway, year after year, until there was no longer any resistance.

BLM-TO led this year’s Trans march, which saw thousands upon thousands joining them in a sit-in on the Yonge Street pavement in memory of those lost in Orlando and in protest of the systems of oppression that allow such atrocities to happen. 

To the extent it made the news, it was as a positive story. | @goldsbie

Stay In The Know with Now Toronto

Be the first to know about new and exclusive content