Controversy around Madison Police’s involvement in the annual Pride Parade highlights divisions within the LGBTQ community. Is there a positive way forward?


MADISON, WIS – OutReach LGBT Community Center today released an official statement announcing that they will be withdrawing the applications from Madison Police Department’s LGBTQ employee group, MPD Pride, as well as those of Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney and the UW Police Department ERG.

The move comes after the board met in emergency sessions every night this week in response to outcry and protest from within the LGBTQ community over the presence of police in the parade, and OutReach’s move to delete comments on its Facebook event criticizing the initial decision.

In the statement, OutReach writes, “Our community is facing complex, unprecedented times, where power is a fleeting commodity for our most vulnerable members, especially queer and transgender persons of color. In times like these it is crucial that we listen to those whose voices are not often heard in the mainstream. Those who voices are silenced due to gender and sexual orientation, as well as the intersections of race, class, ethnicity, gender, ability, immigration status, age, and lack of institutional power, need us to amplify their voices.”

It goes on to acknowledge that armed police will still act as security for the parade, per City of Madison permit requirements. They are also inviting off-duty, unarmed, plainclothes MPD and UWPD officers, Sheriff Mahoney, and their families to attend or even march in the parade with other groups.

“We recognize that not everyone will be happy with this decision,” the statement goes on to note. “It is our hope that those who are hurt by this decision use it for growth and to approach that hurt with humility, rather than retaliate or create further divisions between those with institutional power and those struggling to exist.”

In light of the decision by OutReach to withdraw the applications, Jay Botsford, Program Coordinator with the Wisconsin Transgender Health Coalition (WTHC), said the decision came as a pleasant surprise. “The coalition is really excited that OutReach has taken a really important first step to becoming an anti-racist organization that really works for all LGBTQ+ people in Madison. We’re excited to be able to work with them moving forward, both as majority white organizations that are trying to center QTPOC in all of our work and take anti-racist action in everything we do.”

A previously scheduled listening session for the community with MPD Pride is still planned for Monday, August 13. The event will be moderated by a city staff member from the Civil Rights and HR division, and is scheduled for 6 p.m. in Room 301 at Madison Central Library (201 W. Mifflin St).

This comes after controversy and conversations erupted around the issue as Pride in Madison approaches once again. The OutReach Pride Parade is scheduled for August 19 on State Street and the Capitol. Members of the LGBTQ community, particularly queer and trans people of color, have and continue to express that police at Pride create an unsafe and stressful environment. White allies argue that this drives away the members of our community who should be centered and most supported.

Discussions and disputes about police participation in LGBTQ Pride events are not new. The issue has come up time and again in cities large and small across the United States and Canada, with Toronto Pride making headlines this year for barring its local police from participating in the parade while in uniform or on duty.

The story so far

In Madison, questions first came to the forefront after 2017 Pride saw a mandate by the city to increase the number of police on security detail. This came in reaction to events in Charlottesville, where white nationalists rallied and shot into a crowd of counter-demonstrators. OutReach, the official organizers of the parade since 2014, also announced an active shooter training for volunteers.

The move galvanized many within the community already opposed to police at Pride, especially for queer and transgender people of color (QTPOC), who face disproportionately high rates of targeting and arrest at the hands of law enforcement, according to a study by the Movement Advacement Project (among others).

The WTHC, a group of independent, grassroots activists based in Madison, brought their concerns to OutReach (which was at the time acting as the coalition’s fiscal sponsor). Botsford had noted that they and others argued that the increased police presence would make people feel less safe, and that cops should be removed from the parade entirely.

“[OutReach] said it was too close, but that they would reevaluate for next year,” Botsford said. “Because they made that positive action at that point we said great, you’re going to do this intentional process for next year, you’re going to make sure that you’re speaking to people and getting the cops out of Pride, that’s fabulous. And then they never connected with us again. They never spoke to us. There were no public listening sessions, or if there were they were not well publicized.”

One such session was held shortly after the parade last year. Organized by Shawna Lutzow, who was volunteering at the center, and her fiance Johanna Heineman-Pieper, the event was part of a series called “Conversation about Racism within Queer Communities.” Facilitated by Kiah Price, who identifies as a multiracial Black genderqueer lesbian and is a member of the International Socialist Organization, the presentation focused specifically on the history of LGBTQ Pride and relations between police and queer people, especially QTPOC.

Lutzow noted that the session was attended by OutReach Executive Director Steve Starkey and a few members of the board. She expressed frustration at what she felt was a lack of change in approach after the event.

“Johanna and I told OutReach that we are going to hold our conversations elsewhere since the conversations and content didn’t seem to help them move any further in the right direction,” Lutzow told Our Lives. “We really wanted to help them get to where they want to be with being more supportive to QTPOC. So it was very disappointing when we learned that they were still going to allow police to march.”

OutReach did make one change before today’s reversal, however. They asked MPD Pride, the contingent of LGBTQ officers and allies that has marched in every parade since 2014, not appear in uniform or to bring along any squad cars or other official police vehicles. The group agreed.

Officer Brian Chaney Austin, a member of MPD Pride, confirmed the change and that the group had been following closely along with recent calls to have them removed from the event. “Yes, we have submitted an application to march, but we’re listening to what’s going on. We’ll be considering the level of participation,” he said.

“We’ve been in ongoing contact with OutReach, and they’ve been great to work with,” Chaney Austin added. “I don’t envy their position, it’s really a challenging one to be in year in and year out. In the end we feel bad. We don’t want this to be a burden on this organization, we don’t want people to feel fearful of us. Our goal is really to humanize the badge and make sure people know who is actually marching in the parade. It is really the same people who you break bread with at the end of the day, the same people that go out to the same restaurants and bars as you do, the same people who have similar shared experiences as you do. Every part of the LGBTQ acronym is represented in our police department. We’re happy about that. We’re proud that we’ve been able to achieve that. That’s what we’re marching for. We’re not marching to say ‘Mission Accomplished.’ That ain’t happening. We’re saying we’re here, please know that we’re here in support, we are you, we’re part of the community, and we realize we have more work to do.”

What’s happening now

Over the course of July 31 and August 1, at least three queer people of color left comments on the official OutReach Pride Parade Facebook event page questioning the continued inclusion of police, and, in one case, calling OutReach’s decision racist.

The comments were deleted at some point in the early morning hours of August 1, and commenting turned off entirely for the event.

That day, Kaci Sullivan, the organizer behind the TransLiberation Art Coalition, took to Facebook to call out what they perceived to be the silencing of QTPOC voices in the discussion. One of the people whose comments were deleted was TK Morton, a trans person of color involved in the TLAC who recently moved from Madison to Kansas. The two shared their frustrations and called out Starkey and others at OutReach about what had happened.

Those comments snowballed into a series of community discussions and arguments in various corners of social media. Lutzow and Heineman-Pieper started what’s being called a Community Pride event in protest and began urging members of the community to boycott the official parade. Since then, the WTHC has come on board to help organize a QTPOC-centered celebration on Sunday, August 19 at 6 p.m. at the Goodman Community Center. The protest, which organizers said would only go ahead if police are allowed to march in the parade, was to be held at the top of State Street from approximately 12 to 4 p.m.

Now being officially sponsored by the ISO’s Madison chapter and the Madison Degenderettes, the protest described its purpose as such: “The first Pride began as a riot against police oppression and violence toward LGBTQ+ identities. However, Pride here in Madison, as in many other places, has become corporatized and co-opted by private interests and the police. The inclusion of cops in queer spaces drives out the most vulnerable parts of our community, including QPOC, trans folks (especially trans women), immigrant queer folks with and without documentation, disabled queer folks, and more. The police have been a tool for queer oppression since the beginning, and as such, have no place at Pride.”

Letters have been sent by protesters to every organization and business listed as an official sponsor of the OutReach Pride parade, asking that they drop their support. So far, according to Botsford, groups that have withdrawn from Pride are the WTHC, Orgullo Latinx LGBT+ of Dane County, Diverse & Resilient (which had already opted not to participate due to scheduling constraints), and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin.

(Full disclosure: Our Lives is an official media sponsor of the parade, though our support comes entirely in the form of the Pride Guide already published in our July/August issue, and photography at the parade. We intend to cover both the OutReach and alternative Pride events)

OutReach responded in the days following by releasing an official statement, signed by Board President Michael Ruiz. In it, OutReach attempted to explain the relationship between Pride and the police, as well as the decision to delete comments: “…in poor judgement, we removed posts and made the decision to prevent further discussion on the page. Our intent was to route those discussions to the upcoming MPD listening session, which OutReach requested. We sincerely apologize and acknowledge that we should have found a more transparent and thoughtful way to redirect this conversation.”

What cost Pride?

One of the accusations leveled at OutReach involved their mention of the MPD as a sponsor of the parade. Protesters have argued that OutReach was “prioritizing” fiscal support from police over the needs of queer and trans people of color.

Starkey shared the financial information from the event with Our Lives in an effort to offer clarity on the issue: “The MPD was a $100 sponsor this year. The fee they would have paid was $75 to have a contingent, so $25 was a sponsorship gift. The cost of hiring police in 2017 was $1,753. Our total fees paid to the City of Madison were $3,900. The total cost for the parade was $13,700.”

MPD Pride is a group made up predominantly of LGBTQ police officers and some straight allies. They participate while technically on duty, which is why, even in plainclothes, they will still carry badges and sidearms. MPD officers may earn MPPOA (straight time pay) by participation in community events like the Pride parade, according to their official union contract.

“We know we have a lot of work to do,” Chaney Austin conceded. “People might not be familiar with our group, who we are, and what our mission is. What we’ve tried to relay, and what we need to do a better job of in the future, is that we are LGBTQ people. One of our core goals is to provide a clear line of communication between the community and the police department but also to work on issues that exist, because we live those issues.

“We also aim to provide internal training. A recent example: Every officer at MPD just received one hour training regarding interactions and education with the transgender community. A few of us from MPD Pride, on duty, went up to Minneapolis to make contact with Out Front and work with them. We met with Andrea Jenkins, the first transgender woman of color elected to a city council.”

He also notes that MPD recently implemented a new standard operating procedure for encounters and interactions with members of the transgender community. The policy is somewhat unique in the Midwest, with only a handful of other cities with similar SOPs. “What we’ve identified is that there is a huge, huge need from persons within that community who have talked about their interactions with police,” Chaney Austin explained. “The SOP just solidifies some of our core values that we already operate by, and it offers a little more direction if there’s ever a question when an officer has to do a police report, or has to use certain pronouns, etc. This offers more direction that supports all the training we’ve had throughout the year.”

A community responds

The issue has already highlighted stark divisions, as well as conflicted feelings, within the LGBTQ community in Madison. Many (predominantly white) owners of local LGBTQ businesses have posted to social media with their decisions to stay in the parade, some with mixed feelings, otherwise will full-throated support.

Dave Eick, owner of FIVE Nightclub, posted, “I was asked to boycott the Pride Parade today after part of our larger community felt their concerns were not heard. I was not the only person contacted….each of us struggle with the right answer. FIVE Nightclub spent July raising money for the OutReach Pride Parade as we remember the years of no parade and nothing…FIVE Nightclub will remain in the parade. We will celebrate PRIDE and hope a solution can be found that leaves everyone able to celebrate as a community.”

“I support the LGBTQ+ community by NOT withdrawing from the OutReach Pride Parade,” wrote Plan B co-owner Corey Gresen. “I have a ton of gay/queer officer friends that have every right to be proud of being gay and proud to be a police officer for Madison. By asking them not be proud of both identities in my opinion is harmful to the community as a whole…This is absurd and more divisive and harmful than helpful. When you are ready to accept everyone and all they can be proud of then please join us to celebrate Madison’s prideful diversity and community. Until then please stop sending these hateful messages. I don’t appreciate them.”

Cedric Johnson, a member of the QPOC Pride planning committee (organized by Our Lives), expressed his own personal struggle with the issue. “I’m sensitive to the issue of police brutality against black and brown bodies. It’s been three years since my cousin was shot and killed by a police officer in Rockford, Illinois, and the family still seeks justice for his murder,” he told Our Lives. “As a queer Black man, the anxiety of when and how someone might inflict pain on my body is at the back of my mind whenever I walk down the street. It can be exhausting, and knowing who is an ally helps assuage those fears. Which is why I was discouraged to hear about the protest of the OutReach Pride Parade over MPD participation. Do I support the right to protest? Yes. Do I carry anger towards law enforcement for their systemic attack on people of color? Absolutely. Is there work to do? Absolutely. But how do we, as a community, advance the conversation about justice without trust first and foremost? I don’t necessarily trust every police officer I see, but if one of them stands with me to honor the struggle of queer people–or people of color, or people who struggle with mental health issues–then at least I know who is willing to build that trust. I know who is ready to help with the heavy lifting and who’ll stumble along with me towards a solution. We will disagree. We will argue. But we can also celebrate the minor victories along the way, together.”

So…what now?

With OutReach’s reversal and decision to withdraw the applications of law enforcement groups to participate directly in the parade, further comment, contreovery, and protest is still likely.

There are as many differing opinions around this issue as there are people in the community. On one end, the argument goes that police should have no role whatsoever–even for security–at a Pride event. Perhaps even holding a parade is too mainstream, and the community ought to revert back to its radical protest roots. Many point to the origins of Pride in the U.S. as a series of anti-police riots, including Stonewall. There are ongoing issues with police at Pride events in various parts of the country, too, as well as institutionalized homophobia and racism within law enforcement as a whole.

On the other side, LGBTQ people who are themselves police (and their allies) wish to be included in an event celebrating all aspects of their identities. The argument in favor also includes the idea that it’s a sign of progress to have any police attend Pride in a friendly way (and to have openly LGBTQ officers no less), given the history of animosity between the groups. Others still can understand the need for police security but would rather they didn’t march in the parade, or if they do, out of uniform.

Of course, it’s important to recognize that the modern LGBTQ Pride movement didn’t begin only in the U.S., but rather in different ways in different parts of the world. The current movement is as diverse as its people and locales. Issues of corporatization and capitalism also play a role in the conversation and controversy.

In short, it’s clear that no clear accord is likely to be reached any time soon.