I recently visited the Gay and Lesbian Archives for the first time, held at the Elizabeth Dafoe Library at the University of Manitoba. What sparked my interest to visit was the holdings related to the history of policing of local queer communities. While I was aware of so-called Canada’s history of anti-queer criminalization and surveillance efforts and their effects in larger cities, I was curious how this played out in my hometown of Winnipeg.
I was also interested in delving into the historical and ongoing relationship between police and queers in anticipation of this year’s Pride parade. Amidst two years of an ongoing pandemic, Winnipeg Pride will return to holding events in person. This year Winnipeg is hosting Fierté Canada Pride and its national annual conference, which is expected to draw a national audience. With all eyes turned to Winnipeg this Pride season, it is important to remember the politics of Pride in the local landscape.
There is a long and insidious history of anti-queer legislation, policy, and practices that were enforced across so-called Canada. The infamous criminalization of queer sexual expressions is a case in point. Criminal Code provisions prohibiting “gross indecency” and “buggery” were first introduced in 1892. These terms are merely neutralized legal language used to characterize queer sex. For a century, these provisions would be advanced and appealed to for the purposes of surveilling, policing, and confining queerness. The indeterminate incarceration of Everett Klippert under the label of a “dangerous sexual offender” by virtue of being gay is a prominent example of the anti-queer discrimination that has been upheld by our highest court in 1967.
The policing of sexual expression is popularly believed to have changed in 1969 when federal reform to the Criminal Code purported to “decriminalize” homosexuality. It did not. What was decriminalized was the participation in “gross indecency” and/or “buggery” among two (and only two) parties over the age of 21 in private places. Setting the age of consent for queer sex higher than that of other sexual activities permitted police to surveill and criminalize queer youth and their consensual sexual partners, and operated to bolster the discriminatory construction of gay men as pedophiles. The reforms also resulted in the prohibition of public sex and group sex, inviting the anti-queer surveillance and policing in the decades that followed.
Following the highly-celebrated 1969 reforms, surveillance and criminalization of queers not only persisted, but actually intensified. Queers were targets of RCMP surveillance, where they were likened to terrorists and purged from working in the public service. The targeting of queer sexual expressions was also the basis of bathhouse raids across the country, including the infamous 1967 ‘Olympics Clean Up’ and ‘Operation Soup’ in Toronto in 1981. As it turns out through my search of the Archives, anti-queer state discrimination and violence, as well as organized resistance, is also a foundational feature of Winnipeg’s history.
Local Queer Organizing Against Police Oppression
One of the notable events that I came across was an organized effort against the police ban of queer books. On November 1, 1980, queers gathered outside the legislative building in Winnipeg in an Anti-Censorship Protest that denounced and resisted the Winnipeg Police Services’ (WPS) regulation of the books The Joy of Gay Sex and The Joy of Lesbian Sex.
Winnipeg’s first recognized Gay Pride march was held on August 2, 1987, although Gays for Equality sponsored an earlier march and Gay Pride week in 1973. The 1987 march was organized in anticipation of the Manitoba government’s decision as to whether or not “sexual orientation” would be added as a protected ground in Manitoba’s Human Rights Code. After the passing of the bill, marchers took to the streets with balloons, colourful banners, music and dancing. While some attendees were outfitted in radical drag, others wore paper bags over their heads, attesting to the vicious atmosphere of discrimination and violence from the state and society alike. Despite the protection of queers in anti-discrimination law, the relationship between queers and the state did not improve.
Local news stories in the 1970s and 1980s featured the names of gay men charged under the “buggery” and/or “gross indecency” provisions in the Code for having sexual relationships with younger men, as well as those who were suspected of engaging in homosexual activity. The sensational stories of homosexual sex incited the anti-gay violence that ensued.
In the 1980s and 1990s, gay bashing was rampant in the city. On the day of the Pride March in Winnipeg, on June 30, 1991, Gordon Kuhtey was murdered on “The Hill” (the legislative grounds) - one of the popular cruising sites in Winnipeg’s history. In response to Kuhtey’s murder, in 1992 the WPS outfitted a golf cart, named Casper G. Cop, as part of a pilot project to patrol the river walkways alongside a team of on-foot officers. The city also trimmed the brush and installed lighting to enhance visibility. The response taken by the government was not motivated by the intention to prevent violence, but rather, to police and displace queer sex.
Local gay activist Chris Vogel, of the former organization Gays for Equality, was a prominent voice denouncing the anti-gay nature of policing in this era. In various news interviews and advocacy letters, Vogel pointed out how police target queers for criminalization but simultaneously fail to protect them from violence. Queers insisted that the government was to blame for the precarious and vulnerable position that they were in.
Police have never kept us safe. In their place, communities have come together to keep eachother safe. In January 1992, the Coalition Against Homophobic Violence rolled out a volunteer street patrol during the popular late-night cruising hours to protect against gay bashing.
Amidst this context of state violence and neglect, gays also raised legal challenges following their dismissal from the military and the police service as part of the anti-gay purge. Anti-discrimination laws eventually served useful to queers, as courts ruled in favour of their legal challenges, the ban on military was overturned, and RCMP and police forces began hiring queers. However, inclusion has not proven to be the pathway to liberation. Inclusionary logics - taking the form of diversity hires and sensitivity trainings - do little to change the systemic discrimination built into these institutions, but offer a mere guise of equality within them. Take, for instance, the pro-queer positioning of the WPS in recent years.
Winnipeg Pride and the Ban on Uniformed Police
The WPS marched in the Winnipeg Pride Parade as an organization for the first time in 2012. Police inclusion within pride parades is part of a broader cultural shift away from the political roots of pride as a protest against state discrimination and violence and towards the corporatized, government-censored, family-friendly, and pro-policing stance that Pride organizations have adopted in recent years. It is this very white, capitalist liberal-inclusionary cooptation of Pride that was denounced by Black Lives Matter Toronto in 2016 and that which led Pride Toronto to ban armed and uniformed police from participating in the parade in 2017 onwards.
The call to ban police from Pride is being led by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour), primarily Black, Two-Spirit, trans, and queer people who raise issues of safety, and warn that police inclusion upholds white supremacy considering the heinous police violence, arrest, and mass incarceration which Black folks are the targets of. The call for police to be banned from Pride is merely one part of a broader call for defunding and abolishing the police led by BIPOC Two-Spirit, trans, and queer folks across so-called Canada.
Following in the footsteps of Pride Toronto, in 2017, Pride Winnipeg released a Joint Statement that delineated their stance on police participation in the parade, written in collaboration with representatives of local organizations: Albert McLeod (Two-Spirited People of Manitoba), Levi Foy, (Like That @ Sunshine House), Uzoma Chioma (Queer People of Colour Winnipeg), and Jonny Mexico (QueerView Winnipeg). After a ten-month engagement process and the tireless efforts of these local community leaders, who assisted in surveying over 600 people about their thoughts on police, Pride Winnipeg ultimately decided to ban armed and uniformed officers from future participation in the Parade. The statement reads:
In the spirit of cooperation and inclusion, WPS officers will be invited to march in the annual Pride Winnipeg Parade, but will not be in uniform. The officers will be free to represent the WPS as an institution through other means such as by wearing WPS branded clothing and/or carrying a banner. Police cruisers will not take part in the parade. It is important to note that this is distinct from the officers who will be on duty providing traffic control and security along the perimeter of the parade. This is a mandatory requirement for all parades utilizing city streets and these officers on duty must be in uniform.
The 2017 statement issued by Winnipeg Pride does not preclude police from attending and participating in the parade. To be clear, police are not banned from Pride events. What is prohibited are symbols of policing: uniforms and cruisers. As an organization, they are welcomed, so long as they temporarily leave their gear, guns, and cruisers behind. The ban of symbols of policing, and not the institution of policing itself, is reflective of the “non-partisan” stance that Pride Winnipeg claims.
Following the release of the 2017 statement, WPS registered and attended the parade in 2017 out of uniform. They have not attended as an organization since. News releases indicate the WPS’ dissatisfaction with the ban on uniforms. It is also clear that the organization tokenizes members of their force in order to claim proximity to queerness.
The WPS continues to release video clips and articles to highlight queer officers as copaganda to convince the public that they are queer-friendly. During last year’s Virtual Pride Parade, the WPS posted a picture of officers in uniforms branded with Pride-inspired police patches, using Winnipeg Pride hashtags #VirtualPrideWPG #PrideWinnipeg and #PrideofthePrairies. Such tactics mobilized by police organizations can be chalked up to pinkwashing: the superficial claim that an organization is pro-queer/trans as a strategy to distract from its violent and oppressive nature, and in the case of policing, its systemic racism.
The relationship between Winnipeg Pride and the WPS is never fixed, and there are legitimate concerns that the 2017 decision - however imperfect - may be reversed going forward. The statement calls for police reform and improved relations with the queer and trans community. The statement also reads that the relationship with the WPS will be “evaluated on an ongoing basis,” thereby leaving the door open for police participation in the future. The WPS still lobby Pride Winnipeg for inclusion in Pride festivities. In fact, the WPS reached out to Pride a mere four hours prior to this year's flag-raising ceremony to inquire how they may get involved.
The reversal of the 2017 decision is indeed possible, as documented by historian Dr. Tom Hooper in the case of Pride Toronto. Among the various transgressions that Hooper uncovered in a recent report was the $1.85 million federal funding that Pride Toronto received following its 2018 decision to reverse the ban on armed and uniformed police. Fortunately, this deal was adamantly resisted by the community, and the ban on armed and uniformed officers from the Parade was not overturned. The divergent opinions held among Pride Toronto’s board members is cause for concern. The issue with leaving the door open for police inclusion is that it overshadows the inherent harms that the institution enacts.
The WPS and its Present Harms
The police cannot be reformed to be friendly to our Two-Spirit, trans, and queer kin. In addition to the rich history of anti-queerness in policing and the abolitionist politic of queer organizing that the Archives revealed, police uphold laws, policies, and practices that are discriminatory in effect in the contemporary era. One anecdote to exemplify this oppressive nature of policing is the arrest of a non-binary person in the lead-up to the Trans March in 2017 for simply filming an officer’s interaction with a protestor.
In tandem with the systemic anti-queerness within the organization, the institution of policing is built to uphold racial capitalism. As such, the WPS is one of the largest sources of harm toward BIPOC communities. 2020 was an exceptionally heinous year for police violence against BIPOC and primarily Indigenous peoples in Winnipeg, as well as across the continent colonially known as North America. Police abolitionist organizing surged in wake of the murder of George Floyd, but also in the wake of the murders of Machuar Madut, Eishia Hudson, Jason Collins, Stewart Kevin Andrews, Randy Cochrane, Sean Thompson, and Chad Williams at the hands of the WPS between 2019-20.
In response to this context of racist state violence, the Black women and non-binary folk-led abolitionist group Justice 4 Black Lives Winnipeg organized a protest on June 5, 2020 and 7 Days of No Peace actions held between June 22-29th. They also created a petition with a list of demands to Winnipeg’s mayor Brian Bowman, the City of Winnipeg, and to the province of Manitoba which include as their first demand, among many others, the defunding and eventual abolition of the WPS.
In 2020, Pride Winnipeg released a statement of support for Black Lives Matter (BLM), insisting that the organization continues to “support our community in the fight for equality and inclusion.” However, no mention is made of how Pride Winnipeg will politically, socially, and economically support Black lives going forward. What is also striking is the erasure of the abolitionist politics on which BLM is organized and mobilizes, and the context of police oppression, violence, and murder that reinvigorated the wave of abolitionist organizing that Pride Winnipeg is referencing.
Call to Action: Abolition as the Pathway to 2S, Trans, and Queer Liberation
Within this current landscape of ongoing police brutality and the abolitionist organizing that resists it, Pride Winnipeg has been urged to revisit their statement on policing. Representatives at Pride Winnipeg have promised to return to the conversation this summer. Help get the conversation started by contacting Pride Winnipeg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-866-611-5546 ext. 103 to tell them why police should be banned. It is important that we call upon Pride Winnipeg to not merely ban symbols of policing, but to completely ban police participation in all Pride events going forward. Doing so would move beyond a performative gesture and towards practicing meaningful solidarity with our BIPOC Two-Spirit, trans, and queer community members in the fight for police abolition.