Activists Demand a Police-Free Pride as SFPD Ramps Up Its Gay-Friendly Image

Left: An SFPD officer poses with the department's new rainbow patrol car, which debuted this year. Right: anti-police graffiti from activist group Gay Shame spotted at West Oakland BART.  (Left: SFPD via Twitter / Right: Nastia Voynovskaya/KQED)

Editor's Note: This article is part of KQED Arts' story series Pride as Protest, which chronicles the past and present of LGBTQ+ activism in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Learn more about the series here.

A lot has changed in the 53 years since the Compton's Cafeteria riot of 1966, when the LGBTQ+ community's frustration at police harassment boiled over into a chaotic skirmish.

At the time, the San Francisco Police Department had a habit of raiding gay bars and arresting patrons for anachronistic crimes like "female impersonation." When a trans woman threw a coffee cup at a police officer attempting to grab her, SFPD suddenly found themselves on the defense from people who'd had it with their intervention. Three years later at the Stonewall Inn at New York City, queer and trans patrons rioted against police harassment for three consecutive days, sparking the modern-day gay rights movement. 

In a surprise announcement today, New York's police commissioner James O’Neill apologized for the NYPD's treatment of the LGBTQ+ community during the Stonewall era, calling the department's practices and the law "discriminatory and oppressive."

The SFPD has yet to make a formal apology for similar actions. Yet SF Pride 2019 commemorates the Stonewall riots with the theme "Generations of Resistance," and SFPD officers will march in the parade alongside the LGBTQ+ community. Despite SFPD's efforts to project a gay-friendly image with the roll-out of new rainbow police uniform patches and patrol cars, activists question whether police have any place at Pride, given the long history of police brutality against the queer and trans community.

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Leading the charge against police presence at SF Pride is an activist group called Gay Shame, which criticizes what it calls "rainbow capitalism." The group argues the gay rights movement has strayed too far from its roots of fighting for the most marginalized members of society—today, that includes the queer and trans homeless people who regularly experience police harassment. 

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"If you look at all these queer revolts like Stonewall and Compton’s, the biggest agitator has been the cops," says "Mary Kate," a young Asian-American trans woman from Gay Shame. After setting up a meeting through an unknown person responding to the Gay Shame email account, I meet her and a colleague "Mary J," a Black trans woman, for coffee in the Mission district. Both refuse to give their real names, citing Gay Shame's policy of going by "Mary" in the press out of fear of "transphobic violence from cops or others" in retaliation for their activism. 

Mary Kate continues, "The cops have been leading the way to suppress our expression, suppress our sexualities, suppress our gender and to basically try to shove us in prisons."

Activists want 'cops and corporations out of Pride'

Gay Shame, a loose, secretive coalition of 20 or so queer and trans activists of different ages and ethnic backgrounds, was founded in San Francisco in 2001. (The name Gay Shame is a satirical flip of Gay Pride intended to mock Pride's corporate nature.) Over the last two decades, Gay Shame members have protested real estate developers, political campaigns, businesses and the criminal justice system in creative and sometimes controversial ways.

In 2010, the group held a "goth cry-in" where they mock-tearfully protested tech corporations at Pride. In 2017, they picketed a developer that turned a low-income, single-room occupancy hotel into upscale housing with quadrupled rent. One of Gay Shame's most contentious projects has been their recent picketing outside of Manny's, a Mission district wine bar and venue with social justice programming, because the owner expressed support of Zionism on Facebook. (The Manny's protest has been extensively debated in local media, with some critics calling it anti-Semitic despite support from some queer, Jewish activists; Manny's did not return KQED's request for comment.) 

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Gay Shame is currently running an information campaign under the slogan "Cops and Corporations Out of Pride." Stickers and graffiti with this message have popped up around San Francisco and Oakland in recent months. On May 21, the activists published an open letter to San Francisco Pride asking the organization to ban the police from participating in Pride events "in solidarity with all those who fight back against police terror." San Francisco Pride did not address the open letter, and did not respond to KQED's multiple requests for comment for this story.

Gay Shame members at a 2017 protest.
Gay Shame members at a 2017 protest. (Courtesy of Gay Shame)

Prominent activists have endorsed Gay Shame's campaign in video statements, including Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, a Stonewall survivor and longtime advocate for incarcerated trans people; CeCe McDonald, a trans woman who was sentenced to a men's prison after defending herself against an alleged hate crime; and Blackberri, an Oakland singer-songwriter, AIDS education activist and former San Francisco Pride Grand Marshall.

"Why would you invite a shark to swim with you naked in the sea, because you like sharks?" says Miss Major, who is a former sex worker and police brutality survivor, in a recent video on Gay Shame's website. "These m----rf-----rs are only out to arrest, put us in jail, lock us up, beat us up, get us to suck their d-ck and kick us out naked to go home. Happened to me twice, I know what the hell I'm talking about. They should have never been in the Pride parade."

Discussing Gay Shame's anti-police campaign, Mary J and Mary Kate point to disproportionately high rates of homelessness and poverty among the queer and trans community, the arrests of homeless people and sex workers in Tenderloin drug sweeps, and tent encampment evictions that destroy homeless people's belongings—a practice that has been decried by the United Nations as a human rights violation.

"So many of these displaced people, that many regard as the homeless, are queer and trans," Mary Kate says. "Cops take an active role in the disappearing of their assets, the disappearing of their home, their books and their clothes." She argues that Pride, and its implicit endorsement of police and tech corporations, doesn't truly represent the LGBTQ+ community's interests, prioritizing its white, middle-class members over those disenfranchised by the Bay Area's affordability crisis. 

The nascent gay rights movement that emerged after Stonewall had a similar ideology of caring for society's most vulnerable: In the early '70s, the pioneering organization Gay Liberation Front took inspiration from the Black Panthers and subscribed to an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist ideology; the equally influential Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) fought for the rights of trans women, drag queens and gender non-conforming people who were routinely criminalized for survival sex work and experienced homelessness due to housing discrimination.

In San Francisco, tensions between the LGBTQ+ community and police heightened that same decade when Dan White, a former police officer, assassinated California's first openly gay public official, Harvey Milk, and Mayor George Moscone. The LGBTQ+ community rioted in May 1979 after learning that White was convicted of manslaughter rather than murder and given the relatively short sentence of seven years. 

"I regret the fact that the movement has gone mainstream and has lost the radical edge it had in the days immediately following the Stonewall riots," says longtime activist and historian Martin Duberman, who recently authored the book Has the Gay Movement Failed? "Back then, the gay movement was not a single-issue movement solely concerned with winning rights for LGBTQ+ people. ... I would like to have the gay movement become aware that the majority of gay people are working class and living close to the margins."

SFPD debuted its Pride badge in 2019.
SFPD debuted its Pride patch in 2019. (SFPD/Twitter)

SFPD did not respond to KQED's multiple requests for comment. In April, Commander Teresa Ewins, who sits on the board of the SFPD Pride Alliance, told Bay Area Reporter that SFPD has many LGBTQ+ officers, and that the department generally feels welcomed at the Pride parade. The department's new rainbow patches are part of an intra-department fundraiser for Larkin Street Youth Services, which serves LGBTQ+ homeless youth.

"I've heard no opposition this year," Ewins told B.A.R. "Even those years that there were conversations about us not marching, the welcome we received in the march was pretty immense. People are happy to have us there."

Other police-free celebrations

Gay Shame's "Cops and Corporations Out of Pride" movement isn't unique to San Francisco—nor is it the first time the issue has been raised here. In 2016, Black Lives Matter and other groups canceled their participation in SF Pride after organizers ramped up police presence in response to the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Along with Minneapolis, Vancouver and Toronto's Pride celebrations, Sacramento's SacPride banned uniformed police officers from marching in its parade—but reversed the ban on June 7, a day before festivities were set to begin, prompting calls for resignations.

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"Historically, queer and trans folks, and in particular people of color in our own community, have experienced harassment and violence at the hands of law enforcement," SacPride executive director David Heitstuman told me before the ban reversal. "On the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising against police brutality, we really wanted to be in solidarity with that continuing method of advocacy."

Still, Heitstuman says that due to safety concerns, zero police presence at Pride isn't currently realistic. "The problem is there are real hate crimes in our community—in the queer community and the trans community," he says. Indeed, there have been two suspected hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people in San Francisco just this month. "It's super important that we are conscious of the real safety and security concerns of the guests at our events and, unfortunately, the way that's provided is to use police for those purposes."  

Organizers of San Francisco's Dyke March follow a similar line of reasoning. At that annual event, police officers are present for safety reasons but don't exhibit in the parade. "We try to be aware that a lot of people in the community don't feel safe around the police," this year's Dyke March chair Haley Patoski told the Bay Area Reporter.

"That sentiment is not just us. It’s widely shared," says Mary J. "How do we get people to produce the world they imagine, hope for and, probably in many ways, practice in their life? That involves a direct action that's bigger, and involves many people and coordination—which may or may not be happening."

When I ask how Gay Shame would address safety concerns for a mass gathering like Pride without the presence of police, they say that they question the need for a large, corporate-sponsored celebration in the first place.

"We encourage any and all queer, trans, gay, lesbian and nonbinary people to celebrate, but also to not forget Pride at its very root is political," says Mary Kate. "We can’t let the police and corporations in this very vulnerable place."

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This story has been updated to reflect SacPride's reversal of the ban on uniformed police.

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