Carolyn Wysinger (left), board president of SF Pride, and Tracy McCray, San Francisco Police Officers Association president. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Given law enforcement’s history of abuses committed against the LGBTQ community and other marginalized and oppressed groups, it should have surprised no one when the issue of uniformed police marching in this year’s San Francisco Pride Parade threatened to disrupt an event organizers hoped would unite people after two years of social distancing driven by the pandemic.
Many in the LGBTQ community simply did not want uniformed officers, even queer ones, marching up Market Street in uniforms Sunday. But LGBTQ police officers, firefighters and sheriff's deputies announced they would not participate if their uniforms were banned.
KQED spoke to Pride representatives and queer police officers to get a better understanding of why SFPD officers were initially told not to wear uniforms and why it caused such a controversy.
The way Jupiter Peraza, director of social justice and empowerment initiatives of the historic Transgender District in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood sees it, having a uniformed police presence in the parade is antithetical to spirit of Pride events.
“This is just the visible connection between police uniforms at a celebration, at an event that is supposed to be a repudiation of suppression perpetuated by police,” she told KQED. “This history and this tension has been brewing for decades and decades.”
In fact, Pride organizers in New York City said last month they planned to exclude police from their parade altogether, prompting Mayor Eric Adams, a former NYPD cop, to say he might skip the event.
In San Francisco, the controversy is not whether police officers should march, but what they wear. The SF Pride Committee said LGBTQ police were welcome to march, but not in full uniform because of the uniform's connection to systematic mistreatment or violence directed at the queer community for decades.
For example, in May 1979, the gay community was enraged by a light prison sentence given to former Supervisor Dan White, a friend of the police and fire departments, who murdered Mayor George Moscone and gay Supervisor Harvey Milk.
During the so-called White Night Riots, people threw bricks through City Hall windows and lit police cars on fire. SFPD responded with force at a gay bar in the Castro. It was a low point in relations between the LGBTQ community and the police.
“That’s something that we are very well aware of with the Stonewall Inn riots of 1969, even in San Francisco’s own Compton’s Cafeteria riots of 1966, these were direct confrontations of trans and queer people with police,” said Peraza.
She said opposition to uniformed police in the Pride parade was understandable.
“When you think of the creation of Pride, it was started by the activism and the resistance of Black and brown trans and queer people,” she said.
And today, after the murder of George Floyd and other fatal encounters with police, the uniform can be fraught for people of color and queer folks. That history, including excessive use of force, fatal shootings, discrimination and harassment, isn’t lost on Carolyn Wysinger, president of SF Pride, which puts on the parade.
Although she’s had family members in law enforcement – her grandfather was a police officer in Louisiana, and her cousin was a cop across the bay in Richmond – Wysinger, a Black lesbian, has also had more than her share of run-ins with cops. She says her masculine appearance has led to trouble, like the time she was pulled over in Southern California, apparently for an expired registration.
“I was kind of pulled out of the car, you know, pushed up against the car stop and frisked,” she recalls. “And when he pushed me up against the car, he basically told me, ‘You know, if I find drugs in here, I’m throwing you in jail.’”
Even worse, a CHP officer pulled her over on a freeway in Los Angeles County and pulled out a gun.
"And to this day, I don't know why I was pulled over and I don't know why I had a gun put to my head. But that did happen," Wysinger said.
In spite of incidents like those, Wysinger understands where queer police are coming from when they declined to march without uniforms.
“They felt that by not wearing a uniform that they were dishonoring the struggle of those who were there during [the fight pressing the SFPD to allow LGBTQ officers to march in their uniforms] and that, you know, was kind of diminishing that fight for them,” she said.
San Francisco Police officer Kathryn Winters, a transgender member of the SFPD Pride Alliance, has a different take on the community's relationship with the SFPD.
“Once upon a time, LGBTQ persons weren’t really welcome in law enforcement. And the idea of LGBTQ people wearing a police uniform in a pride parade was unheard of,” Winters said. “The idea of us being out proud and visible was radical.”
For that reason, she and other LGBTQ police officers were reluctant to let go of a hard-fought right both to join the SFPD and then to march in full uniform.
So when the Pride Committee told them they could only march in something less than their full uniforms, the cops said no. And in a show of solidarity, Mayor London Breed said she wouldn’t join the parade either.
Lt. Tracy McCray spoke for many police officers and other first responders when she described the importance of wearing their uniforms in the parade.
“It’s a part of who we are. And, unfortunately, for some people they have angst when they see that,” McCray told KQED. “We’re identifiable with that. It is who you are.”
As a 33-year veteran of the SFPD, McCray isn’t just any cop. She’s the new president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, which for years has defended officers accused of excessive use of force, killing unarmed men of color and sending racist texts messages. Despite pledging to reform, SFPD continued to stop and use force against Black people more than any other race in 2021. And earlier this year it was revealed that the department regularly logged rape victims’ DNA information into a database to use as evidence in unrelated crimes.
But, in at least one way, McCray is different from her POA predecessors.
“Obviously, I’m a woman. I’m Black, and I’m actually a lesbian,” she said. “Who saw that coming? No one saw that coming. I didn’t see that coming.”
Having a Black lesbian, who grew up in public housing in the Western Addition, head up the San Francisco police union might be evidence of impending change. But despite those demographic details, McCray acknowledges she's still a cop.
"I'm interested in wages, working conditions and benefits," she said. "I'm not into playing these political games, so I'm not a politician. It's about getting what's best for the members out on the street so they can understand what they can and cannot do when they're doing their job."
The disagreement over uniforms in the parade turned out to be something of a misunderstanding. During a conversation at Manny's Cafe in the Mission earlier this month, Pride Executive Director Suzanne Ford and Officer Winters, both transgender women, it became clear that the SFPD was under the impression they could not wear uniforms at all, while the parade committee merely wanted them to wear some clothing with SFPD Pride logos rather than their full uniforms.
In the end, a compromise was struck where on-duty members of the SFPD Pride Alliance will march in uniform and others will not.
“We felt that a common ground would be, 'Hey, still come be in the parade. But maybe if you made it a little bit more casual, like Pride T-shirts, so it wouldn’t be as bad for some of the people who were asking for you not to be there,'" Wysinger said. “We felt that it was a good common ground for both the demonstrators and for the LGBT officers.”
That idea of openly gay cops and other law enforcement members marching in the Pride parade brings back memories for Danilo Quintanilla. As a closeted 18-year old growing up in the Central Valley, he came to San Francisco with a friend in 2008 to watch the parade.
His eyes welled up as he recalled how that moment made him realize that a queer, Latino kid could fulfill his dream. Since 2016, he’s been a deputy with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department.
“One of the most profound moments was seeing law enforcement officers walking down the parade, holding hands of their partners, seeing literally the diversity of San Francisco reflected in law enforcement,” Quintanilla said.
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