Life

The New York Times Doesn’t Know What Pride Is For

People march on the street for a gay liberation parade.
Revelers at the second annual Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day in New York City on June 27, 1971. AP

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

In her major new account of ACT UP New York, Let the Record Show, writer Sarah Schulman recalls that the infamous AIDS activist group had a special nickname for a certain paper of record: the “New York Crimes.” Though a bit goofy, the pun drew attention to the New York Times’ very serious history of institutional homophobia and, at the time, derelict coverage of the HIV epidemic that ACT UP was fighting. While the paper has improved by many measures in the decades since, it showed a little flicker of its old self this week.

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After the announcement that New York City’s Pride organizer, Heritage of Pride, had banned uniformed police and security from events from this June through at least 2025, the Times’ editorial board righteously declared the move a serious “misstep” that threated to rend the LGBTQ community asunder. The editorial lamented the hurt feelings of some cops (one of whom described the news as “devastating,” despite the fact that she can still participate as an individual, just without her uniform) and damage to Pride’s “inclusive spirit,” and worried if now wasn’t a “strange moment for the L.G.B.T.Q. community to be closing the door on some of its own and missing an opportunity to broaden its coalition.” No, the editorial board concluded—this foolish, mean-spirited ban won’t do. “Taking a pledge to protect and serve your city,” it wrote, “should not mean sacrificing the chance to be included in a community celebration of your identity.”

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Whether uniformed police should be present in Pride parades and other events is a long-standing point of conflict among queers. Other cities, like Toronto, already have bans in place, while many campaigns and their attendant pushbacks are ongoing elsewhere. That Heritage of Pride (not known for being particularly progressive) made this move in New York at the behest of community members and activists (and with the guarantee of pro-police backlash) suggests that consensus may be moving in the no-cop direction.

But I am not here today to convince anyone of which side is right. I simply wish to take a moment to draw our attention to why the Times is so wrong in this editorial—about what Pride is even for.

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It is not until the ninth paragraph that readers are reminded why Pride events happen in the first place. The first Pride, in June 1970, was a protest march to commemorate the riots at the Stonewall Inn the year before that were—yes, indeed!—an uprising against police violence. And these riots were not, as the ed board implies, provoked by a single “police raid”; they were the culmination of decades of state violence perpetrated by police against queers, often in places, like the Stonewall, that were the only, already-imperfect havens they had. It is a fine thing that, as the Times points out, the NYPD finally apologized for its actions in a PR stunt during the Stonewall 50th anniversary celebrations in 2019—but not nearly fine enough to erase the simple fact that Pride emerged directly and inexorably from activism, specifically against police brutality.

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Times do change, and prejudiced institutions can do better. But the editorial board’s misapprehension is not just a matter of the historical origins of Pride—it’s also, and in some ways more importantly, about Pride’s purpose in the present. The editorial invokes the language of “identity” throughout. In discussing one lesbian officer, it weirdly conflates sexual identity with choice of occupation, writing that Pride is a special time when “two parts of her identity converge.” Is “cop” an identity akin to sexuality? I’m not so sure, but I do think Pride is maybe not the place for celebrating that. We gather at these events, quite explicitly, to assert and honor our LGBTQ identities and history—whatever it says on your badge or lanyard or nametag about work is really not the point (which is one reason to be wary of the corporate presence in these events, but I digress).

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Later, the Times writes that “the Pride parade is also about the joy of belonging—of being part of a people knitted together by shared identity and survival.” This is a benign-enough sentiment, up until the last word. What, one wonders, does the Times imagine queer people have had to “survive”? And which of us have had to do the most surviving? If you checked with trans women of color or queer youth experiencing homelessness, you might find that the police are at the top of the list of “things to be survived,” and thus you might begin to understand better why some may view cops’ presence, however “crisp and clean” their outfits, to be less than desirable at an event we agree should offer a modicum of joy.

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To be fair, the Times does include a few paragraphs allowing that police violence against queers is a thing, though it notably limits its statistics to Pride season itself—as if incidents at the actual parade (which did in fact happen at the Queer Liberation March just last year!) are all critics were concerned about. “But,” the board inevitably pivots, “barring L.G.B.T.Q. officers from marching is a politicized response and is hardly worthy of the important pursuit of justice for those persecuted by the police.” And here we have the crux of the misunderstanding: The Times editorial board believes that banning queer cops from marching in uniform is political, that tying police violence to actual police is a politicized move detached from the harm that actual victims have endured. And this is inappropriate, you see, because Pride is a “celebration,” a joyful party where “politics” are in poor taste.

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I’ll allow that that’s what Pride is for some—many, even. A mere celebration. But for others, Pride is meaningless without politics. Pride is political. Pride is a space and a season in which queers have the opportunity to express and test our political commitments, some of which, yes, may divide us—which is as it should be.

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The Times editorial scolds that New York’s ban is “a poke in the eye at law enforcement more than a meaningful action to address police violence or foster a dialogue about law enforcement reform.” But political action sometimes requires a bit of poking, no? (ACT UP certainly thought so.) And here we are, right now, having what looks to me like a dialogue about law enforcement reform. Hm. Not to spoil the party, but could it be that, in this particular instance, mixing politics and Pride is working precisely as it’s supposed to?

Correction, May 20, 2021: In some instances, this article originally referred to the Times editorial as an “op ed.”

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