Participants in the NYC Pride March make their way down...

Participants in the NYC Pride March make their way down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in June 2019. Credit: Charles Eckert

In the fall of 2020, three African American police leaders traveled to Alabama to retrace the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Paying tribute to the recently deceased John Lewis, who was nearly killed by police in Selma during that epochal march, they also memorialized George Floyd and other contemporary Black victims of police violence.

"Officers who understand history have the strongest commitment to ensuring it isn’t repeated,” the three Black leaders wrote, after completing the 54-mile journey. “Police and communities have to engage in progressive dialogue and work together in order for there to be sustainable change.”

Alas, many LGBTQ Pride parades this month seem to be marching in the opposite direction. In several cities, including New York, parade organizers have barred gay and trans police officers from participating. They have also demanded that all police — including those enjoined to protect marchers and spectators — stay away.

The reason? Police have a long and ugly history of violence against LGBTQ communities. Indeed, the Stonewall Riot of 1969 — which is commonly cited as the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement — began as a protest against police raids on a bar frequented by gay and transgender patrons.

That’s all true, but it's the worst possible reason for excluding police from Pride marches. It’s like saying that the three Black police leaders should have stayed away from Selma, because cops did awful and terrible things to John Lewis.

It also contradicts the larger themes of Pride itself: openness and inclusion. Everyone should be free to be themselves, it seems, unless they’re part of a police force.

Yet police should be excluded, organizers respond, because brutality against LGBTQ communities continues. And several studies confirm that trans people — especially those of color — are more likely to experience police violence than other populations.

But studies also show that young African American men are more likely to commit certain crimes. Does that make it OK to follow a Black patron in a store or to pull over an African American driver, simply on account of their race? Of course not. Judging an individual based on their group identity is the heart of bigotry, in all times and places.

That's why it's wrong — indeed, it’s bigoted — to assume that a given police officer is an anti-trans bigot, simply because other police have brutalized trans people. And when the allegedly prejudiced officer is also trans or gay, you’ve entered the theater of the absurd. You’ve made them into stock figures in your own struggle, which denies the fullness of their humanity.

Let's be clear: Police violence against minorities is real, and it is poisonous. And many police officers know that, too, especially those who are minorities themselves. That's what inspired the three Black police leaders to recreate the Selma-Montgomery march, following George Floyd's murder.

But there was more to the police leaders' quest: a desire for dialogue and honest communication, which is the only way we can repair our broken nation. Quoting Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who led the 1965 march, the police leaders wrote that people “do not get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other.”

Pride organizers think they know the police, including LGBTQ officers. But they don’t. They know a badge, and a uniform, and a history of violence. Yet history isn’t destiny. And assuming otherwise does violence to us all.

This guest essay reflects the views of Jonathan Zimmerman, who teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania.

This guest essay reflects the views of Jonathan Zimmerman, who teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania.

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