The Hub The politics of Pride Parades in 2020

The politics of Pride Parades in 2020

By: Dr. Alexa DeGagne

Canadian LGBTQ2S[1] history has been shaped by hostile relations with police organizations and the criminal legal system.

[1] Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Two-Spirit

Police organizations have sought to regulate “deviant” sexual behaviors in public and private spaces, have dismantled queers spaces and communities, and have impeded LGBTQ2S political actions, campaigns and organizations. Riots, marches and parades against police surveillance, criminalization and abuse are depicted as critical and galvanizing moments in which queer and transgender people fought back in collective ways against the state. Queer and transgender activists’ movement into heretofore restricted space, often character­ized as civil disobedience, emphasized the urgency of the groups’ claims, as they were willing to violate laws for their causes and made it difficult for the public, government officials, and the press to ignore the presence and messages of the marches and parades.

The 1969 Stonewall Inn raids and riots are infamous in American LGBTQ2S history. The New York police frequently raided gay bars and establishments in the city. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gender-nonconforming people and drag kings and drag queens reported that the police were routinely violent in the raids and sexually assaulted many of the patrons they arrested. In June of 1969, the police again raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar that was frequented by gay men, sex workers, drag queens, and transgender and gender-nonconforming people. The story of Stonewall is imbued with myths, but what is known is several transgender women of colour—including Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera—were instrumental in initiating and sustaining a riot that broke out in the days that followed. Over the next weeks, LGBTQ2S people rioted in the streets of New York. Over the years, gay liberation and transgender revolutionary groups formed, demanding an end to the criminalization, incarceration and police abuse of LGBTQ2S people, basic human rights in terms of housing and healthcare, and the liberation of all people’s sexuality and gender from harmful heteropatriarchal systems.

In 1981, dur­ing Operation Soap, Toronto police targeted four gay bathhouses. Police offi­cers inflicted violence, verbal abuse, and property damage and arrested 304 people (Guidotto 2011). Over 4000 people marched in Toronto’s streets to protest Operation Soap, and LGBTQ2S activists subsequently initiated Toronto’s first pride march in 1981 called the “Gay Freedom Rally” in response to police targeting and brutality and politicians’ neglect of LGBTQ2S people. In the same period, pride parades were founded across the country. During Edmonton’s first pride parade in the 1980s, people wore paper bags on their heads for fear of being “outed” as LGBTQ2S. As police raids of queer spaces continued—Edmonton’s Pisces Health Spa in 1981; Toronto’s Pussy Palace in 2000; Calgary’s Goliath’s Sauna in 2002—LGBTQ2S communities organized parades and marches to assert their place in the city, to have their voices heard, and to call out the injustices of police targeting and brutality (Bain and Nash 2007; Holota 2015). Annual pride marches and parades continue to occur in June in memory of these counter-police actions and to continue the transformative work of those LGBTQ2S activists.

Police Walking in Toronto Pride Parade 2016
Police Walking in the 2016 Toronto Pride Parade

We may currently see pride parades as joyous celebrations of LGBTQ2S people and community, but pride parades were initiated as political protests against the police’s targeting and violent abuse of marginalized and racialized LGBTQ2S people. Pride parades have always incorporated celebration, song, dance, drag, and exhibitionism. Debates often pit the politics against the party, but the two should not be seen as mutually exclusive. Rather, drag performance and displays of LGBTQ2S nudity, sex, affection, and sexuality are political because they push the boundaries of who is allowed in public spaces, and how sexuality and gender can be expressed and liberated in public. Pride parades have therefore sought to bring what is relegated to the private, shamed, and condemned into the public in order to unsettle and then transform the heteronormativity of society.

Since the 1990s, however, these once politically radical protests and marches increasingly became corporate-sponsored, “family-friendly,” and pro-police celebrations. Over the past two decades, the relationships between LGBTQ2S people and police organizations in Canada have shifted as particular LGBTQ2S community members and organizations have argued that the criminal legal system is the best means to protect LGBTQ2S people. In exchange for protection—of themselves and their private property—“good” LGBTQ2S people have cooperated with police organizations, inviting them into LGBTQ2S communities, spaces and events; celebrating the inclusion of police in pride parades; and accepting police apologies for past discrimination and abuse. Ultimately, I argue, this cooperation with police has legitimized police criminalization of marginalized and racialized LGBTQ2S people, and facilitated police and neoliberal state obstruction of LGBTQ2S community and space formation and political engagement. This obstruction fits neoliberal moves to stifle public political engagement and ultimately limit claims-making by marginalized groups.

“Anti-racism LGBTQ2S activists, accordingly, have pushed back against ongoing police incursions in queer spaces and events, and have demanded accountability, reformation, defunding and/or abolition of police organizations.”

– Dr. Alexa DeGagne
Black Lives Matter Toronto in Pride Parade 2016
Black Lives Matter Toronto in the 2016 Pride Parade

Black Lives Matter (BLM)-Toronto brought these contestations into sharp relief when they initiated a sit-in during Pride Toronto’s 2016 parade. BLM-Toronto members, Indigenous groups, Latinx groups, and allies sat down in the street, halting the parade, and began drumming, sing­ing, chanting, and making speeches. A BLM-Toronto member pointed to the anti-Black and anti-Indigenous nature of LGBTQ2S spaces, such as Pride:

Are we proud? I don’t think we have much to be proud about! I don’t think this is a cause for celebration when there are Black people dying, when there are queer and trans people dying! We are constantly under attack. Our spaces are under attack. Pride Toronto: We are calling you out. For your anti-Blackness. Your anti-Indigeneity. Everyone in this space sit down. This is your space! (BLM-Toronto 2016)

BLM-Toronto carved out their own space by physically stopping their bodies and stopping the bodies of provincial and federal leaders, corporations, police and corrections organizations, and LGBTQ2S organizations. In that moment, the influential, powerful decision-making bodies could not ignore BLM-Toronto (Donato 2016). With the parade halted, BLM-Toronto presented a list of demands[1] to Pride Toronto’s executive director, which included the “removal of police floats/booths in all pride marches/parades/community spaces” (BLM-Toronto 2016). The BLM-Toronto group resumed marching in the parade, chanting in celebration, “we won,” after Pride Toronto’s executive director agreed to their demands[2] (CBC News 2016).

Canadian police practices such as carding/street checks, surveillance, harassment and displacement continue to disproportionately target people who are Black, Indigenous, unhoused, poor, disabled, in mental distress, neurodivergent and undocumented within LGBTQ2S popula­tions (Cole 2020). These marginalized people are thus more likely to be charged and convicted of crimes, to receive harsher and longer sentences, and to experience discrimination, sexual assault and violence from police and correctional officers (Maynard 2017). BLM-Toronto argued that inviting police into LGBTQ2S spaces and events, such as pride parades was threatening and exclusionary to racialized and marginalized LGBTQ2S people. Anti-racism LGBTQ2S activists, accordingly, have pushed back against ongoing police incursions in queer spaces and events, and have demanded accountability, reformation, defunding and/or abolition of police organizations and prisons.

Following BLM-Toronto’s protest, LGBTQ2S communities across Canada debated the role of police in pride parades and LGBTQ2S spaces and communities, yielding a range of responses from banning police organizations to enabling police to determine the nature of their participation to cancelling the pride parade. LGBTQ2S communities engaged in prolonged, complex, and at times hostile debates about the meaning of pride parades, who should be included in parades, and the role of police in the LGBTQ2S community more generally.

In this moment of transformative resistances against police targeting and killing of Black and Indigenous people —including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the United States, and Andrew Loku,  Abdirahman Abdi, Eishia Hudson and Chantel Moore in Canada—LGBTQ2S activists have advocated for pride parades to once again be political, anti-racist marches against police brutality. The Toronto coalition No Pride in Policing has called on the Toronto City Council to defund the Toronto Police Service, and on Pride Toronto to hold an anti-racism march in place of their 2020 pride parade. The Vancouver Pride Society announced it supports defunding police organizations, and that police will not be allowed to participate in this year’s digital pride parade or in future pride parades. Thus LGBTQ2S anti-racism activists are building on the historical roots of pride parades, and seeking to use the political power, space and platform of pride parades to amplify the ongoing anti-racist movement against police brutality.

WGST 322: Sexuality in Society is a new course in Athabasca University’s Women’s & Gender Studies program, which focuses on many of the histories, theories and debates discussed here. WGST 322 traces the historic and ongoing relationship between the Canadian state, police organizations and LGBTQ2S people. WGST 322 students engage with feminist, queer, Indigenous, and racial theories that trouble and deconstruct these social interpretations of normative sexuality. Students study a textbook as well as academic articles, poems, songs, podcasts, videos, blog posts, and news articles and critically analyze contemporary debates pertaining to sex and sexuality, including virginity pacts, the HIV/AIDS crisis and queer activism, sex work, pornography, eugenics and forced sterilization, interracial marriage and the Indian Act, public sex, LGBTQ2S communities and culture, same-sex marriage, policing and pride parades, and LGBTQ2S refugees.


[1] BLM-Toronto’s demands included: increased funding and support for Black spaces and events during Pride Toronto; increased American Sign Language interpretation during Pride Toronto events; increased representation of Black trans women, Black queer people, and Indigenous folk among Pride Toronto’s staff; and a public town-hall meeting between marginalized communities and Pride Toronto to discuss the implementation of the demands (Black Lives Matter 2016)

[2] Pride Toronto’s Executive Director rescinded his support of BLM-Toronto’s demands the next day. Months later, Pride Toronto issued a statement in which it apologized for “its role in deepening the divisions in our community, for a history of anti-blackness and repeated marginalization of the marginalized within our community that our organization has continued” (Grief 2016). At Pride Toronto’s 2017 AGM, members voted to support all of BLM-Toronto’s 2016 demands


Bain, Alison L., and Catherine J. Nash. 2007. “The Toronto Women’s Bathhouse Raid: Querying Queer Identities in the Courtroom.” Antipode 39 (1): 17–34.

Black Lives Matter Toronto. 2016. “Black Lives Matter—Toronto, along with Various Community Groups, Including BQY and Blackness Yes Have the Following Demands.” Facebook, July 3.

CBC News. 2016a. “Black Lives Matter Toronto Stalls Pride Parade.” CBC News, July 3. -1.3662823.

Cole, D. (2020). The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power. Doubleday Canada.

Donato, Al. 2016. “Black Lives Matter Held Pride Accountable—And Toronto Should Too.” Torontoist, July 6. -pride-accountable-toronto-should-too/.

Grief, Amy. 2016. “Pride Apologizes to Black Lives Matter Toronto.” BlogTO, September 20. _lives_matter_toronto/.

Guidotto, Nadia. 2011. “Looking Back: The Bathhouse Raids in Toronto, 1981.” In Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, edited by Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith, 69–81. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Holota, Victoria. 2015. “The Pisces Bathhouse Raid—City Museum.” Edmonton City as Museum Project, May 28. -pisces-bathhouse-raid/.

Maynard, Robyn. 2017. Policing Black Lives. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing.

  • June 17, 2020
Guest Blog from:
Dr. Alexa DeGagne