The Hub Don’t look to police for protection after Colorado Springs, says researcher

Don’t look to police for protection after Colorado Springs, says researcher

Athabasca University’s Dr. Alexa DeGagne says 2SLGBTQ+ communities must protect each other after Nov. 20 shooting attack

The deadly shooting at a Colorado Springs nightclub has 2SLGBTQ+ communities reeling with shock, horror, and anger—and once again pondering the question whether any space truly is safe.

When it comes to making spaces safer, an Athabasca University researcher says queer and trans communities must look inward rather than relying on government or police for protection.

“We saw in Colorado that it wasn’t the police that provided protection, it was community members,” explained Dr. Alexa DeGagne, an associate professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at AU. “So this is an ongoing thing in our communities, where we provide each other safety and protection.”

“We saw in Colorado that it wasn’t the police that provided protection, it was community members. So this is an ongoing thing in our communities, where we provide each other safety and protection.”

– Dr. Alexa DeGagne, associate professor of women's and gender studies

The Nov. 20 shooting killed 5 people and injured 25 while evoking memories of the 2016 attack that left 49 and 53 wounded at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Attacks against 2SLGBTQ+ activities, including demonstrations, have increased more than four-fold between 2020 and 2021, according to a recent study from the U.S.

The symbolism of the most recent attack, occurring on Transgender Day of Remembrance, reinforces how the most marginalized communities continue to be targets of violence, DeGagne says.

“For this violence to happen on this day is both, sadly, expected, and really gut wrenching,” she says. “It’s deeply jarring, deeply symbolic.”

In a wide-ranging interview, DeGagne shared her perspective on how the 2SLGBTQ+ community can protect itself, the role of anger in activism, and why Colorado Springs can’t be dismissed as a one-off tragedy but a symptom of systemic issues of homophobia and transphobia.

Is any space truly safe?

Colorado Springs has renewed questions about whether any 2SLGBTQ+ space is truly safe from violence, and the role of police in protecting queer and trans communities. When it comes to the latter, DeGagne says more policing isn’t the answer. She has studied the relationship between queer and trans communities and police organizations in Canada.

Historically, she says, spaces such as bars, pride parades, and even hookup spots like parks have always been targets for violence from government, police, or the wider community.

“Really, over and over again, what we’re seeing is that protection isn’t provided, and that marginalized and racialized queer and trans folks feel endangered when police are in those spaces.”

Pushing back against police encroachment

That’s why there is a growing movement in 2SLGBTQ+ communities to push back against police encroachment into queer and trans spaces and rejecting notions like LGBTQ liaison committees or offers of security at events.

Recent examples include Black Lives Matter Toronto demanding a ban on police members marching in full uniform in the Toronto Pride Parade in 2016, and subsequent bans on police participation in cities such as Edmonton.

Police tactics to connect with queer and trans communities don’t actually lead to meaningful engagements, DeGagne says. “It’s seen by many queer and trans community members as a PR vehicle for the police.”

“Marginalized and racialized queer and trans folks feel endangered when police are in those spaces.”

– Dr. Alexa DeGagne

No space can truly be safe, she adds, but there is a lot of work communities can do to learn about how to deal with the police. They can also develop escape plans for when an attack occurs, or take training on how to de-escalate tensions that can occur at places like anti-2SLGBTQ+ protests.

“People strive for safer spaces, or intentional spaces, to create enough mechanisms to protect each other, and to be really honest about what it would like to confront or fight back.”

DeGagne adds that it’s equally important for queer and trans communities to acknowledge and dismantle exclusions—based on race, class, ability, or gender—in their own communities.

Anger an important tool

Anger is a natural reaction to deadly acts of violence like Colorado Springs. It’s also an earlier theme of DeGagne’s research—using anger as a tool in 2SLGBTQ+ social activism.

By studying the work of Black feminist and queer writers, DeGagne wanted to explore how queer and trans communities use anger to their benefit at a time when 2SLGBTQ+ rights are increasingly under attack. The United Conservative Party’s first legislation after they formed government in Alberta in 2019, she notes, was to remove protections for children wanting to join gay-straight alliances in their schools. More recently, Edmonton was at the centre of an anti-2SLGBTQ+ protest over a drag queen book reading at a public library.

“There’s a space for anger when we feel mistreated in this way. Anger is an understandable reaction to injustice, inequality and violence. Anger can be very productive, and I think it’s necessary.”

“Anger is an understandable reaction to injustice, inequality and violence. Anger can be very productive, and I think it’s necessary.”

To be clear, anger doesn’t mean violence. It means finding a positive outlet for using anger to advocate for change. This can often start in virtual spaces like social media but also include in-person through protests and rallies.

“The important questions to ask are, ‘How can we channel it? How can we channel it toward the appropriate targets? How can we not take it out on each other? And how can we acknowledge what it can do for us?’”

Who has the right to be angry?

When it comes to anger some groups have more freedom of expression than others, says DeGagne. This can be seen in how certain groups are treated differently, she adds, pointing to the trucker convoy protests in Ottawa and southern Alberta where right-wing factions were allowed to protest for weeks on end. Contrast that to Indigenous land defenders opposing pipeline construction through unceded territory, who were “shut down repeatedly,” she adds.

“It just shows how much privilege there is there that certain people are allowed to be angry, and we expect that of them. And we justify it.

“Marginalized people’s anger is often used to demean them, to discredit them, to delegitimize them and to make the case for why they shouldn’t be part of our political system and shouldn’t have their voice represented.”

“It might be tempting to say that was one person in Colorado … but I think it’s important in these moments to reflect on how this is perpetuated throughout our society.”

Don’t focus on the perpetrator

As details of the Colorado Springs shooting emerge, focus will invariably shift to the perpetrator and his motives—something DeGagne believes is not helpful for anyone, including the 2SLGBTQ+ community. “Often what that ends up doing is scapegoating a whole bunch of different things,” she says.

Doing so ignores system issues where queer and trans people have been demonized by society run by settler-colonial, patriarchal, and hetero-normal systems. Much of the discourse happening in Alberta is perpetuated by people in power.

“It might be tempting to say that was one person in Colorado … but I think it’s important in these moments to reflect on how this is perpetuated throughout our society.”

Published:
  • November 30, 2022