Silicon Valley Pride’s ban on uniformed police officers in this year’s parade is a flash point in decades of tensions between law enforcement and the local LGBTQ+ community.
The LGBTQ+ community’s apprehensive relationship with police began long ago, most notably with the 1969 Stonewall Riots from which Pride originated. These riots were a response to the police brutality and arrests taking place at LGBTQ+ bars and other queer spaces around the country.
Wendy Rouse, a history professor at San Jose State University, said targeted police violence in California dates back even further.
“Here in California, earlier examples of police harassment toward LGBTQ+ people occurred at Compton’s Cafeteria in 1966 in San Francisco and the Black Cat Tavern in 1967 in Los Angeles.”
Though the riots originated in New York City, the tense relationship continues today across the country, including San Jose.
In 2014 and 2015, the department conducted a “gay sex-sting” operation that unlawfully targeted gay men in a park restroom. One of the falsely accused reported that the police made homophobic remarks during the arrest. The city was forced to pay a $125,000 settlement to five of the men.
Last year, a San Jose man filed a lawsuit after CHP officers exclusively ticketed single male drivers for after-dark parking in a popular gay cruising spot on I-280, and another lawsuit claimed that sex worker laws were selectively enforced against LGBTQ+ individuals in the city.
Recently, new police chief Anthony Mata was criticized for his failure to support a transgender officer he worked with. LGBTQ+ Assemblymen Evan Low and Alex Lee released a joint statement to say they were dismayed by his appointment. A San Jose officer was forced to retire earlier this year after making transphobic remarks online about President Joe Biden’s assistant health secretary Rachel Levine.
‘No cops should be at Pride’
Rouse said the Black Lives Matter movement also played a part in the community’s reluctance to march with police this past week.
“In solidarity with the Black community and their demands for police reform, the LGBTQ+ community across the nation has objected to the presence of uniformed police officers at Pride to highlight this long history of law enforcement’s abuse of power and to help draw attention to the need for reform,” she said.
At the pride event Sunday at Plaza de Cesar Chavez, attendees had varying perspectives on the role of law enforcement at LGBTQ+ events.
“No cops should be at Pride, and definitely not in uniform,” said Molly, who declined to give a last name.
Others thought the SJPD presence should be welcomed.
“I think police participating in uniform shows inclusivity,” said Bruce Neff, a local teacher. “But I’m not a political person so I don’t know how the community feels about it.”
One group of friends, who declined to give their last names, was divided.
“It’s OK if they just stand on the sidelines and mind their own business,” Kiara said.
Others at Kiara’s table chimed in.
“Cops should never be at Pride in uniform,” Rian said.
Despite demands from Silicon Valley Pride to not march in the parade, a group of uniformed police officers walked through Plaza de Cesar Chavez, some wearing rainbow shoulder patches.
South Bay law enforcement leaders have long tried to bridge the rocky relationship with displays of support.
SJPD was the first big-city police department to fly the rainbow flag. In 2017, SJPD recruitment ads featured same-sex couples in an effort to hire LGBTQ+ officers.
But despite recruitment efforts and rainbow symbols, anti-LGBTQ+ policing is still a national issue.
The 2020 National Crime Victimization Survey found that 48% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people and 58% of transgender people have been victims of police misconduct.
Although explicitly anti-LGBTQ+ laws, such as those criminalizing sodomy and cross-dressing are long gone, discriminatory laws still exist today. The recent “Walking While Trans” law aimed at stopping prostitution unfairly targeting transgender women, who were often presumed to be sex workers.
In the last few years, SJPD has taken concrete steps to repair its relationship with the LGBTQ+ community. Officers are now required to use individuals’ preferred names and gender pronouns on police reports, and earlier this year, the department mandated LGBTQ+ sensitivity training.
In 2016, the department established an LGBTQ+ advisory board, and an LGBTQ+ liaison officer serves to connect the community and police.
Officer Denise Alvarez, who serves as the liaison, could not be reached for comment. An SJPD spokesman also did not respond to a request for comment.
‘Where is the accountability?’
But these efforts may not be enough to build a bridge between the two groups. Given the long history of abuse and the origins of Pride, many argue that police are antithetical to Pride and the values of the LGBTQ+ community.
“I think the entire LGBTQ+ community, both those who are friendly to the department and those who are not, are just starting to get tired of the constant guessing game, wondering if the department will do the right thing in any given situation,” said attorney Michael Vargas, who sits on the boards for the Rainbow Chamber of Commerce Silicon Valley and the Bay Area Municipal Election Committee. He also writes a monthly column on LGBTQ+ affairs for this news organization.
“We desperately want to have faith in the police department, but each new controversy, scandal, lawsuit, shooting, or scapegoating makes it that much harder and more exhausting,” he added. “The glossy photos, the hiring campaign, the rainbow patches, the rainbow flag. Those are all great. But that’s symbolic change. Where is the substantive change? Where is the accountability? Why did this whole fiasco have to play out in the media, when the department has an LGBTQ+ liaison?”
Contact Kristen Pizzo at [email protected]