LGBTQ police officers reaffirmed their support of the Pride parade and its organizer, OutReach LGBT Community Center, as part of a complex and sometimes heated community listening session held Monday night.

Nearly 90 people crowded into a meeting room at Madison’s Central Library to discuss differing views on whether or not it was appropriate for official law enforcement contingents to participate in the annual parade, to be held this Sunday, August 19 in downtown Madison.

The session had been previously scheduled, at the request of OutReach, in response to protest from some members of the LGBTQ community over the cops’ involvement. After OutReach reversed their decision and voted last Friday to withdraw the applications of law enforcement groups, the controversy exploded online.

Lt. Brian Chaney Austin told the assembled group that although he and his fellow LGBTQ-identified cops were personally upset by the decision, they understood and respected OutReach’s position.

“Although we wanted to take part,” he said, “we felt that we perhaps dropped the ball in relaying to the community, and particularly that aspect of community that had real valid concerns and fears as to who we are, number one, and as to what our purpose and mission is. I’ve tried to be upfront about our support of OutReach, I’ve tried to assuage some of the heartbreak about this…but I do not want any correlation between the police department and wanting some sort of boycott of the Pride parade. That is not where our position is. That is certainly not what any of us want to see happen.”

The session was moderated by Karl Van Lith, who works in Organizational Training Development at City of Madison and frequently facilitates dialogues between various parties. He began by having everyone in the room introduced themselves and explain why they had come. While many people simply expressed that they were “there to listen,” several expressed whether they supported or were against the decision, with a seemingly equal number on either side.

Marge Sutinen, a former director of AIDS Network (now ARCW), identified herself as a “straight woman who’s had the privilege of working in the LGBTQ community for the past 30 years.” She summed up the feelings of many present by noting, “It’s so energizing to see a room of people who care about an issue, regardless of whether you agree or disagree.”

Those who supported removing official, on-duty law enforcement from the parade (members are still welcome to march as civilians, according to OutReach’s statement) cited ongoing concerns especially from queer and transgender LGBTQ+ people over feeling unsafe with armed police marching side-by-side with them.

“We need to shut up and listen to people of color and listen to and believe them about their experiences,” said Linda Ketcham, Executive Director of Madison Urban Ministry.

Racial disparities continue to negatively impact communities of color and LGBTQ+ people nationwide. Wisconsin has some of the country’s highest rates of incarceration for African American men, and in Madison, Blacks are arrested at more than 10 times the rate of whites. Milwaukee and Madison are some of the most segregated cities in the country. Half of the state’s “Black neighborhoods” are actually prisons. In Madison and Dane County, we continue to rank among the worst when it comes to racial disparities and inequality for everything from employment to graduate rates. Police have shot and killed unarmed Black men like Tony Robinson and Dontre Hamilton with little to no consequence.

Several of those present at the meeting expressed their own hurt and abuse at the hands of law enforcement, whether it was being profiled for their race, sexuality, or gender presentation, or actually being harassed or attacked. A woman who identified herself only as Christine, a member of the Madison Degenderettes and the TransLiberation Art Coalition, noted that she had been the “victim of police brutality myself, and I’m white. My experience was horrible, but I’ve heard much worse experiences from my friends who are not white.”

Several people pushed back, arguing that Madison’s Police Department has come a long way in its policies and procedures, and that asking even its LGBTQ-identified members not to march constituted discrimination.

Freda Harris, a Black woman and parent of a gay son, said she was sad to hear about the decision to remove cops from the Pride parade, and hoped that more communication would help lead to better solutions for the community. “I hate to see the community being torn apart because of concerns on one side and different concerns on the other. Talking to each other is hopefully going to bring us more together, or back together.”

The discussion remained mostly respectful, but did grow heated when certain pointed questions were posed. UW Madison Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies Sami Schalk asked, “I genuinely want to understand, particularly for white folks in the room, how this decision harms you? For me there’s a difference between ‘I feel unsafe when I see queer cops vs. I feel safe when I see cops.’ Being in this room speaking in front of all these people–many of whom are people who seem to be people who don’t’ support my community–fills my body with adrenaline. I want to understand the harm that’s being done to others. I want to hear from officers who are LGBTQ identified about how they feel about this.”

Madison native and bartender Jason Harwood interjected to note that he had once been helped by a gay cop and a straight cop after having withstanding a physical attack. “They helped me get through all of that, including the trial afterwards, and not feel scared. Now they’re being asked not to participate.”

Another voice in the room countered with, “You were helped when your head was split open. Michael Brown was left in the street for hours.”

Van Lith quieted the argument that ensued between several people present, and Schalk reiterated her question about how the decision caused harm. Chaney Austin spoke up on behalf of the officers, noting, “I live on both sides of the fence, y’all. It is quite challenging to be in the position I am…I grew up in Chicago. I had some bad experiences with members of law enforcement. From my perspective, I am trying to do something good with something that has been identified as broken. It is incredibly small and fragile baby steps that we’re taking in this mission. My hope is that we can continue to talk, my hope is that the very people who have really valid concerns and fears—I get it—I wanna talk. I wanna be able to sit down together in a small, potentially group environment where it’s potentially easier to have that dialogue. And then I can try to bring it back to my department to bring change.”

“I understand the decision, I respect the heck out of it, I know we have more work to do,” he went on to say. “I don’t want the police to be what is fracturing our community. That will drive us absolutely to a point where we will not recover. But we accept that there are these fears – and ready to have these conversations and bring them back to decision makers.”

Another MPD Pride member, Officer Jodi Nelson, added her own thoughts. “We don’t want to take away from Pride, we want to support this event,” she said. “I am proud, I am a lesbian, and I have a partner. It took me a long time to get to this place. We are proud of who we are, we are proud of our group and the department. There are definitely things we can do to improve. We can’t always make the decisions of what is put out [to the public]. But we can be working behind the scenes. Whether we are agreeing at this table or not, I only think this kind of discussion will make our community better.”

The MPD’s new transgender and nonbinary Standard Operating Procedure (SPO) was touted as one way in which LGBTQ officers on the force had worked with the community to create more inclusive policy. Police worked with now former OutReach volunteer and transgender advocate Ginger Baier to create the SOP, which seeks to enshrine in official documentation how police should interact with and treat transgender and gender non-conforming people while on the job.

Chaney Austin said told Our Lives that all officers had recently received a one-hour training regarding interactions with and education about the transgender community.

Several board members from OutReach attended the meeting as well, including Board President Michael Ruiz and Secretary Jill Nagler. “I know I hear a lot of vitriol from people who are against our decision,” Nagler said. “It makes me really sad, and it makes me scared to even say I’m with OutReach, so I can only imagine what QTPOC feel like in these situations. I’ve been on both sides. I grew up in a rural town where I was harassed, where I had a police officer call me a dyke. Those are strong, scary, powerful words. I moved to Madison and I hear stories, I see it, I’m not blind.

“I want to see individual officers marching off-duty, without the guns, without the badges. We want to get to know the humans behind the badge, behind the gun.”

Chaney Austin noted that several members of MPD Pride still intended to march in the parade on Sunday, “as civilians.” Sheriff Dave Mahoney, who was not at the listening session, has also released a statement that he will also be marching as a private citizen.

Mahoney told Madison365 that he understands and supports OutReach’s position, too. “When I first received the email from (OutReach executive director) Steve (Starkey), it caught me off guard. I got to admit I was disappointed. So I called and spoke to Steve and found out the reasons why, and understood. I understand that, I agree with it.

“What was persuasive is Steve said that there’s been extensive conversations about this and we, in the eleventh hour, have decided that we want to ask law enforcement not to participate, so as to build a more collective and cohesive community, not drive a wedge between community members, but bring them together. And to do that, right now, we need to ask law enforcement to stand down and that’s fine. It’s what we should do,” Mahoney added.

The Pride parade is scheduled for 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. on State Street and the Capitol Square. The Community Pride Coalition, which spearheaded the protests against police in the parade, will now march as well as hold their own afterparty specifically for QTPOC and trans/nonbinary persons at the Goodman Community Center from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

OPEN Board member Sandy Eichel announced at the listening session that the group would be creating a taskforce to facilitate further conversations around the issues of racial disparities, law enforcement relationship with the LGBTQ+ community, and more. Those interested should reach out directly.