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Why LI Pride groups put out welcome mat for LGBTQ cops banned from NYC events

NYPD officers ride their motorcycles at New York

NYPD officers ride their motorcycles at New York City's annual Pride Parade in 2019. Credit: NurPhoto via Getty Images / Erin Lefevre

Until the early 2000s, New York City was a refuge for some of Long Island’s gay and lesbian cops who wanted to march in a Pride parade but on more hospitable turf.

Some didn’t want to be seen so close to home. Others wanted to test the waters for being gay and in uniform in public. And as for the Island’s own Pride parade, it wasn’t until years after the NYPD agreed to let uniformed cops march in the city parade that the Island’s county police forces followed suit.

But now it’s the Island's biggest Pride parade where uniformed cops are welcome — and New York City's where they’re not. Last month, organizers of the city parade announced that "law enforcement exhibitors" — cops, jail guards and others — are to be banned from marching.

On Long Island, the Pride organizers not only want uniformed cops to participate, but also are donating a table for the Nassau County police to recruit. The contrasting approaches broadly reflect the different way cops tend to be viewed in the city versus the suburbs, the politics and ethos of each place, demographics and race, and the pull, or lack thereof, of activist groups, experts say.

New York City's parade ban on law enforcement groups, in place until at least 2025, was promulgated "to create safer spaces for the LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC communities," the organizers said in a May 15 statement, using abbreviations for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex and asexual, and for Black, Indigenous and people of color.

"The sense of safety that law enforcement is meant to provide can instead be threatening, and at times dangerous, to those in our community," the statement said, adding: "NYC Pride is unwilling to contribute in any way to creating an atmosphere of fear or harm for members of the community."

The same day that statement was issued, Long Island’s Pride organizer, David Kilmnick, affirmed his support for police participation. "We cannot be in the business of picking and choosing which LGBT members are worthy of marching out and proud; that goes against the very nature of our community," he explained last week.

Bianca Wilson, a senior scholar of public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law, said there hasn’t been sufficient research to explain why suburbs tend to be more welcoming of cops at Pride parades but thinks the difference reflects how certain activist groups hold more sway in cities like New York.

Gary Gates, a retired demographer from UCLA who has studied gay and lesbian issues in the suburbs, traced the different attitudes to the origin of Pride itself: the June 28, 1969, NYPD raid on the Stonewall Inn gay bar in Manhattan. Raids on such establishments were commonplace at a time when gay gathering places were illegal, but beginning that night and lasting days, patrons threw bricks, fists and trash cans at the cops, sparking the modern gay-rights movement.

"LGBTQ activists in cities like New York, which has been holding Pride marches for as long as they’ve existed, still view Pride as a protest rooted in the Stonewall uprising against NYC police," Gates wrote in an email. "Pride parades are a newer feature of suburban communities and are less a byproduct of protest and more rooted in celebrations of cultural change toward greater acceptance and diversity."

Karen Tongson, chair of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Southern California, said suburbanites had different underlying interests.

"The suburbs are driven by the needs of homeowners, and that commitment of protecting property and property venues often leads to more socially conservative positions," said Tongson, who supports excluding uniformed cops from Pride events: "It becomes an issue around protecting your stuff — protecting your safety, protecting your family — gay, straight, whatever."

Tawni Engel, project director of the Long Island Crisis Center’s Pride for Youth, said the organization, which is in Bellmore and Deer Park, saw yet another explanation relevant to Long Island: "If a young person is growing up in a family that’s full of police officers, not that this is true of everyone, but they may feel more of an alliance with the police."

Several donors to the organization — which provides support groups, counseling, testing for sexually transmitted illnesses and referrals to trans people for hormones and surgery — have complained and threatened to withhold funding over what’s happening in New York City, according to Engel.

She said donors’ concerns have been allayed once she’s explained that her group isn’t affiliated with the city organization — and doesn’t take a position on whether uniformed cops should be in Pride events.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, neither New York City’s nor Long Island’s Pride events will be hosting a full-scale parade. But there will be some celebrations in both places.

On Sunday on Long Island, for example, there will be an event in Eisenhower Park in East Meadow — including a table to recruit Nassau County cops. That request came from Det. Lt. Catrina Rhatigan, commanding officer of the Nassau's 6th Detective Squad and founder of the department’s LGBTQ Society, which has 30 members, most of whom are cops. The event will include the Nassau police commissioner, Patrick J. Ryder, she said.

She’s disheartened by the decision in New York City, where she's marched. "That’s just disappointing as an officer who has done the right thing for 17 years — to be told that my family can’t come to see me in uniform and march," said Rhatigan, who has a wife and three children.

It wasn’t until 2000 that cops in the Suffolk and Nassau county police forces were allowed to march in uniform in a Long Island Pride parade. In prior years, cops in plainclothes would march with the Gay Officers Action League, and sometimes in a disguise.

Jason Samuel, a member of the legislative committee of the NYPD’s Gay Officers Action League — which successfully sued the department in 1996 to be permitted to march in uniform in the city parade — said his group is still trying to convince organizers to reverse the ban.

(Shortly after announcing the latest change, the city parade’s organizers were overruled by the general membership, but then the executive committee overruled the membership, according to The New York Times.)

Asked whether members would consider marching in Long Island’s parade instead, Samuel said: "I think our members are receptive to whoever extends an invitation, and of course we always seek to support our queer colleagues any chance we get, and if we can do that by marching with them, we will. I certainly will."

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