Policing and Pride

by James Whitfield (he/him/his)

Since the inception of the first UK pride, it has been a mix of protest and celebration. Often both have been so fused it is impossible to differentiate the two. However, over the years, many have questioned whether the element of protest is still present within pride. Arguments critiquing pride point out its willingness to include institutions which possess a tarnished past and present with members of the LGBTQ+ community. A key example of this is the police force. This has come into greater focus given the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which, if it comes into force, would provide greater powers to police officers to regulate or stop protests. Pride is implicated within this because the new laws have the potential to be imposed upon it and other movements pride ought to be allied with, most notably the Black Lives Matter protests. It is crucial for pride to take a stand against this proposed legislation as doing so would be a statement of resistance against government attempts to restrict the right to protest.

Pride is inextricably tied to a combination of protest and celebration due to its historical legacy. Within the UK context, the first pride was the 1st of July 1972, and it was undoubtedly an act of resistance against LGBTQ+ oppression as well as a celebration of existence. Examples of this discrimination are prevalent throughout UK legislation, with no legal protection for transgender, lesbian or gay people against discrimination in employment or for provision of goods and services. And whilst homosexual acts were partially legalised five years beforehand in 1967, features of the legal system in England and Wales made it possible to prosecute these actions. Some of the laws that facilitated this was the differing age of consent for gay men and prohibitions against public indecency. According to Peter Tatchell, this meant over 15,000 gay men were persecuted after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. In this way, the traditional historical record can be slightly deceiving when it asserts legalisation occurred in 1967 as there was still criminalisation occurring, it just operated with different techniques. Indeed, it is said that some stayed away from pride for fear of being arrested. There was also a reluctance based on the fact individuals could lose their employment if they were found out. These are just a few of the many examples of oppression during the time and provide an indication of what pride was fighting against in 1972. However, to frame this act as just a protest would be disingenuous as there were clearly elements of celebration. People at the event discuss several acts of revelry performed on the day including, undressing, and dancing around Hyde Park, kissing in front of police officers and there were unconfirmed reports of spin the bottle with handsome French men. Such acts were an unruly combination of celebration and protest in a deeply hostile society. They were a disruption to the wider social and cultural environment which systematically reproduced the narrative that LGBTQ+ people did not need or deserve liberation.

In the foreground, a hand holding up a black flag with rainbow lettering that spells out 'Born This Way'. Other rainbow flags held up by other people in the crowd.
‘Born This Way’ flag at pride.

In order to respect this legacy some have argued that current pride should do more to reject conformity and actively protest for greater rights and freedoms; many of which are currently denied to members of the LGBTQ+ community. A key issue has been around whether pride should include uniformed police officers in the march. Some are critical of accepting them since doing so may indicate support for their actions and distract from questions over the appropriateness of their conduct. For instance, it is apparent the police force is not doing enough to stop the unequal policing and imprisonment of ethnic minorities. For instance, the police use of stop and search is highly disproportionate with Black people nearly nine times more likely to be searched than White people. Also, in 2017 England and Wales possessed a proportionally higher number of Black people in prison than the US. There are also numerous examples of ethnic minorities dying in custody, two examples of which are the deaths of Kingsley Burrell and Sean Rigg (I would also highly recommend checking out the work currently being done by the charity INQUEST to ensure justice is done for these men’s families). This broader discrimination against ethnic minorities raises questions over the treatment of LGBTQ+ people of colour by the police and whether including officers at pride ignores the discrimination faced by this group. At the very least, pride should do more to address these practices of the criminal justice system by demonstrating against the use of stop and search as well as disproportionate rates of imprisonment.

There is now another factor to consider in the relationship between pride and the police which is the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. This bill has a large remit focusing on a variety of aspects of the criminal justice system but what has caught the most amount of attention are the additional powers it grants to the police to regulate protests. These proposed laws came into intense criticism after clashes between the police and protestors at the Sarah Everard vigil. The event was viewed as an overextension of police powers and concerns emerged that granting the police more authority would effectively shut down protests like that of Sarah Everard. When the specific content of the bill is studied it is easy to see why many human rights organisations and news outlets are apprehensive. For instance, the bill allows the police to set a maximum level of noise for public processions. This means that marches that seriously disrupt the public by being too noisy could be shut down. Pride is implicated because it is a march that is inherently disruptive and loud, and whilst these laws may not be applied to it (if they get passed at all) the possibility they could is cause for significant concern. Further evidence of the bill restricting the right to protest be seen through a law that allows for the arrest of people who “intentionally or recklessly cause public nuisance”. This may involve a protestor causing another individual “serious annoyance”. Such ill-defined criteria seem to dramatically enhance the possibility of protestors being prosecuted. Consequently, it is no surprise it has been referred to as “absurd and frightening” by barristers. Pride should also pay attention to these laws because of what they mean for protests it ought to be aligned with, such as the Black Lives Matter protests. Indeed, a law within the bill seems directly targeted at the BLM movement providing a maximum 10-year sentence for damaging public memorials. Which appears to be a reference to the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol. The upcoming pride events could be an opportunity to generate solidarity with other protests by explicitly urging the government to abandon the proposed bill.

From the inception of pride, it has been embroiled in controversial topics that disrupt and challenge broader society. As such, it must not shy away from addressing divisive political issues that impact many of those who participate in the parade. More specifically, pride should work to demonstrate against the over-policing and disproportionate imprisonment of ethnic minorities within the UK. This would serve as a message that pride is supportive of LGBTQ+ people of colour and the broader BLM protests. Furthermore, it is clear pride needs to take a stand against the implementation of the Police and Crime bill which clearly demonstrates an overreach of power that necessitates some form of opposition. Taking an explicit stance on these issues would be a small step on the way to making pride less conformist and more dedicated to demanding liberation for the entire LGBTQ+ community.

About the Author:

James Whitfield is an MA student in the department of Sociology at the University of Warwick. His MA is being funded by the ESRC and so will his eventual PhD research which will commence in the academic year 2021/2022. James’ research focuses upon prisoner deaths, specifically in how the media frames the lives and issues of inmates. James’ work covers all prisoner representations with a strong focus on cases of transgender and BAME inmates. He is broadly interested in queer criminology, discrimination in the justice system, representations of imprisonment and social theory. As a committee member on queer/disrupt he assists with the running of the group and helps organise events.

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