Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander campaigns for justice shine the way for decolonising local queer spaces, including addressing the participation of police and correctional officers at Pride (Image: The New Daily)
By Anisha Pillarisetty | @nishkinsilk
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers should be aware that this article contains details of people who have passed away, and this may cause distress.
The momentum of last year’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, built on the long-standing campaigns of local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, has spurred LGBTQIA+ activist groups in Australia to renew efforts to question the participation of uniformed police and correctional officers in Pride events.
Sydney queer activist group Pride in Protest (PiP) first published an open letter in October 2020 to the Board of the Sydney Lesbian and Gay Mardi Gras (Mardi Gras), asking them to “reconsider the participation of the police and corrective services”.
The letter mentioned that no officers have been held criminally responsible to date for their involvement in Aboriginal deaths in custody despite continual campaigns by those who have lost loved ones.
“These issues are not isolated, but reflect a structural issue with the police and prison system,” PiP’s letter reads.
The letter was signed by more than 1000 individuals and groups, including Blaq Aboriginal Corporation who, by drawing attention to Aboriginal deaths in custody, paid tribute to the BLM movement at this year’s Mardi Gras.
The motion to ban police and correctional officers participating in uniform at Sydney’s Mardi Gras fell just short of passing, receiving 44 per cent of votes at a board meeting in December.
Responding to the signatories of the open letter, Mardi Gras reiterated its solidarity with the BLM movement. However, it also said “excluding groups or individuals . . . based on their career, association, political affiliation or the banner they wish to march under does not align with our intrinsic, core value of inclusion.”
Wirangu, Mirning and Kokatha person Keenan Smith, who spoke at Adelaide’s BLM protests, was in full support of PiP’s open letter and was “really disappointed” with the outcome.
Over-policing and over-incarceration of Aboriginal people meant the police weren’t “protectors or upholders of justice,” Smith said.
“Our first experiences with the police aren’t often great and we have a lot more interactions and engagements with police than our white counterparts.”
Internationally, Pride organisations in the US, including New York City Pride, have responded to community groups by reducing the presence of police and correctional officers at respective Pride marches.
The Auckland Pride March banned police and correctional officers from participating in uniform in 2018 in response to community concerns. Consequently, a separate group formed to organise a parade joined by Auckland Police and other major organisations, including corporate sponsors. Both events continue alongside each other, attracting thousands each year.
On May 16 2021, PiP published another open letter addressed to Midsumma, the organisers of Melbourne’s recent Pride march and Midsumma Festival, requesting that uniformed police and corrections officers be banned from their events.
Midsumma’s Pride march went ahead on May 23, with the Victorian Police force participating in uniform despite the letter garnering about 1000 signatures from community groups and individuals, including the Victorian Pride Lobby.
In its open letters, PiP highlights numerous incidents of recent violence against queer communities by the police and correctional services including the alleged leaking of photographs of a transgender woman by a Victorian police officer last year, and the death in custody of transgender Aboriginal woman Veronica Baxter in 2009.
Baxter died while being incarcerated in an all-male NSW prison, despite Correctional Service policy stating that transgender people have the right to be held in facilities that match their gender of identification.
The coronial inquest into Baxter’s death two years later, in 2011, found that she had died by suicide. The inquest was criticised for failing to address key issues, including whether Baxter was given her prescription hormone treatment and why there was no record of calls Baxter made using the emergency intercom on the night of her death.
Since PiP published its open letters, a NSW Police senior constable was found guilty of assaulting a transgender woman a few months after the 2021 Sydney Mardi Gras.
USASA Rainbow Club Executive Assistant Eliza Bache said the decriminalisation of homosexuality was not a “one-step process”.
“Queer Pride exists in spite of the police, not because of it,” she said.
“It’s pretty disrespectful to have a police float show up at Pride.
“The origins of Pride are a direct backlash against state-sanctioned violence by the police.”
Although homosexuality was decriminalised across Australian jurisdictions from 1975 (South Australia) to 1997 (Tasmania), recent reports from various Australian jurisdictions reflect pervasive issues underpinning police interactions with the queer community.
Released in May 2021, a final report was published from the parliamentary investigation into gay and transgender hate crimes in NSW between 1970 and 2010.
The report found that due to the “indifference, disinterest, and at times hostility” of the NSW police at the time, the queer community were deeply distrustful of the police.
“The committee received evidence highlighting the reluctance of lesbian women and transgender people in particular to report hate crime and violence,” the report said.
In an updated policy statement in 2019, NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller acknowledged the NSW Police force’s “negative history in relation to the LGBTIQ communities”.
“Our current approach maintains an ongoing commitment to improving the way we manage LGBTIQ issues in a policing context,” he said.
A Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) 2019 report found that some Victorian Police workplaces had an “entrenched culture” of homophobia.
Although similar reports have not been published in South Australia, the 2016 Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) report found that gay officers in the South Australia Police (SAPOL) force were more likely to experience sexual harassment.
South Australia held its first Pride march five years before Sydney’s first Mardi Gras in 1973, but it was not until 2003 that the second Pride March was held.
This marked the start of SA’s annual Adelaide Pride March with Police Commissioner Grant Stevens granting permission for police officers to participate from 2015.
In his keynote speech at South Australian Advocacy Alliance’s 2021 International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexism and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT) event, Ngarrindjeri, Kaurna and Italian poet Dominic Guerrera said the queer community needed to address systemic racism and work in solidarity with Aboriginal campaigns.
“The work we do today is not born out of our imaginations, but rather out of the hard work of those who came before us,’’ Guerrera said.
“I want to acknowledge some local Aboriginal queers who have done significant work for the local community.
“Aunty Sandy, Uncle Neville Birtwistle-Smith, Sarah Betts, Raymond Zada, Charlotte Coulthard-Dare, Simone Miller, Latoya Rule and Sasha Smith. Plus many more.”
Guerrera said that having a few uniformed police officers march at Pride is not the answer to eliminating the violence inherent in colonial institutions.
“You want us to lead the parade, but you are wanting people who are oppressing us and killing us to march alongside of us?” he said.
“I don’t feel safe there. I don’t feel safe at Pride having police participating but also policing.”
Representatives from the Pride Adelaide Committee, who organise Adelaide’s march, said the Committee was not an advocacy body and that its legally binding constitution requires them to include all community members “regardless of their occupation or what they wear”.
“We acknowledge the fact that there are issues with police here and overseas which are unacceptable and need to be addressed” they said.
“We also recognise that for many years SAPOL have been strong supporters of Pride March Adelaide in dealing with the logistics of the march and supporting the safety of participants.”
On The Record contacted SAPOL for comment, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
The first Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, held in New South Wales on June 24 1978, was meant as a peaceful protest to mark the anniversary of New York City’s Stonewall uprising.
The Stonewall uprising of 1969 was a catalyst for Mardi Gras events across the world. The three-day protest was a response to police violence against the queer community, and was instigated by the police raiding Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in lower Manhattan.
The NSW police force responded to the first Sydney Mardi Gras by assaulting, injuring and arresting the attendees known as the 78ers. Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1984 in NSW, 14 years later.
In 2016, the NSW Government and NSW Police Force issued separate apologies to the 78ers.
However, following the BLM protest in June last year, when NSW police herded attendees into a train station and pepper-sprayed them, First Nations Rainbow and First Mardi Gras Inc., consisting of 78ers, issued a joint statement condemning the actions of the NSW police.
“78ers have now received an apology from the Police Commissioner for the behaviour of NSW Police in 1978. But the NSW Police have demonstrated that they have not changed,” the statement read.
Their statement also said the NSW police force’s violent apprehension of protesters after a peaceful BLM protest perpetuated “trauma and further injustice”.
“As LGBTQI First Nations people, we know the compounding of discrimination puts us at further risk from police,” they said.
“The fear for our communities, our loved ones and us in relation to the police and justice system’s discrimination and violence is real, ongoing and current.”
USASA Rainbow Club Executive Assistant Evan Johnstone said queer people facing a number of intersections, such as race, sexuality, class and disability, were more likely to be the target of institutional discrimination.
“The Stonewall Inn riots for example, the people that were targeted most were black transgender women who were sex workers,” he said. “Also Pride not being accessible, which I personally, as a disabled person, face.
“I think that’s definitely something that should be addressed.”
Keenan Smith said local and national queer spaces are not always safe for non-white queer people, especially if they are Aboriginal.
“It’s just interesting how I still get treated, especially by white queer people, as I would back home in the country,” they said.
“There’s still that miseducation and lack of awareness around First Nations people.
“And they often speak as if colonisation is a past thing and it’s like, well no, colonisation is ongoing. The colony still exists.”
Smith said they’ve had racist comments directed at them in queer spaces while a “large majority of people” were silent bystanders.
“Silence is also participating in that violence, or in the continuation of those behaviours,” they said.
First Nations Rainbow co-chair Ricky Macourt said racism is systemic and hence, is also perpetrated by those within the queer community.
“You just get these comments from time to time that people say or joke about,” Macourt said.
“And they disregard the hurt that we’ve felt for 250 years now at the hands of those that have colonised and invaded us.
“It’s hard to see people who have themselves experienced discrimination – and understand that part of your story – still inflict that pain upon you.”
Guerrera’s IDAHOBIT speech further highlighted the collective actions that are necessary to create safer communities.
“We need to not only be calling people out, but those of us who have the skills and energy, need to be calling people back in through restorative justice systems,” he said.
“We need to stop calling the cops and start calling each other.”
Guerrera’s speech concluded in a call to action for building stronger communities beyond Pride.
“Someone once asked me what queerness meant to me,” he said. “I said it represents the infinite possibilities of human genders, sex and sexuality and also the absence of them.
“To me this is a really beautiful thing. So let’s make our community radiate that beauty.”
If you are in need of support you can call Lifeline at 13 11 14, or the suicide callback service on 1300 659 467 at any time.
You can also call or web chat with LGBTI peer support and referral service Q-Life at 1800 184 527 or via this link between 3pm and midnight.