The schism in the LGBTQ+ movement

Police officers will not be marching in next year’s Pride Parade, after festival organisers decided to ban officers from marching in their uniforms. According to Dr Bryce Edwards, this reflects a historical schism within the LGBTQ+ community over how radical the queer rights struggle should be.

“Diversity, inclusion and tolerance” are some of the key values of our more politically liberal times. They’re important, because they relate to a changing world in which marginalised people are being recognised, and traditional forms of discrimination are being challenged and defeated. This is especially so in the spheres of gender and sexuality – where human rights struggles have demanded equality and inclusion for all.

Yet, elements of the queer movement have been accused of being intolerant and exclusive in regards to opposition to the police and other state agencies.

This “intolerance” can be seen in the controversial decision this week by the organisers of next February’s Pride Parade to exclude uniformed police officers. The decision is part of a growing debate about participation in pride events – last year, the board of the Pride Parade made the controversial decision to tell the Department of Corrections that its officers would not be welcome to march in their uniforms.

Some in the queer community – especially amongst the more conservative elements – are aghast, and pointing out that the gay movement is all about tolerance and inclusion. Many are speaking out against the “police ban” and suggesting, in return, there should be a boycott of the Pride Parade.

This type of anti-Establishment vs pro-Establishment, or radical vs conservative divide is very typical of all social movements, which inevitably have different ideological elements. Likewise, the LGBTQ+ community cannot be expected to all have the same political agenda or way of viewing social progress.

Understanding the schism in the queer movement

Traditionally the gay liberation movement epitomised radical politics. After all, for much of the twentieth century the movement was fighting in countries like New Zealand against a status quo that was opposed to their very existence, making it necessarily anti-Establishment.

The contemporary queer or LGBTQ+ movement in New Zealand now generally works alongside, as well as within, Establishment institutions such as the police, the armed forces, and corporations. After many important victories and a radical shift in public opinion, the queer community has taken on a more politically mainstream character. This has meant that gay pride events have also gradually become less overtly political, and more mainstream.

For example, over the years, politicians from all sides of the political spectrum have come to participate in pride events. Commercial companies have become sponsors. Major establishments like the military, police, and prison officers have attended – increasingly in their uniforms. As part of the pride scene, now, there are rainbow coloured police cars and ANZ’s “GAYTMs” for withdrawing cash.

Not everyone in the queer community has welcomed this evolution. The more radical activists involved have been uncomfortable with the idea that “diversity” means banks, police, and other authority figures get a place in their parade. For such radicals, these “oppressive” institutions are engaging in “pinkwashing” – in which institutions or corporations are seen as attempting to win over citizens and customers with superficial marketing.

LGBTQ+ radicals have been especially unhappy with institutions taking part that have historically played a part in the oppression of the queer community.

Police and prison guards are seen as some of the worst offenders. For the more anti-Establishment activists, the police uniform is synonymous with the brutal discrimination and oppression of queer people. After all, people used to be arrested and/or beaten up by police due to their sexuality. Prison guards, too, are seen as part of a penitentiary system in which LGBTQ+ are mistreated or not given full human rights.

Such activists are suspicious of the various institutions of the state, and private companies, that seek to be involved in the queer movements and their events. Some question whether these institutions and companies are genuine in their attempts to be full participants in the queer movement, and whether they have changed enough, given their history of discrimination. There is a suggestion that the queer community is being too compliant with these parts of the Establishment, and therefore being subject to “pinkwashing”.

Debates over who can march in the Pride Parade

Recent decades have seen pride parades and other queer community events become more and more inclusive of mainstream and status quo agencies. But over the last few years, there’s been a radicalism building against this “mainstreaming”. Protests have occurred against police and prison officers in previous marches. And debates have increased in volume about the politics of these events and who should be included.

For the radical wing of the queer community, these developments reflect the idea that the liberalisation of sexuality and gender rules has primarily benefitted the more upwardly mobile gay professionals in society. This is the constituency that is now most in favour of police participation in pride events. Whereas the more marginalised queers are most likely to have run-ins with police, and therefore less likely to want to rub shoulders with them on a fun event like a Pride march.

Clearly, the historical process of homosexual law reform over the last thirty-five years – along with further progressive change – has led to a polarisation between more marginalised and less marginalised queers. Therefore, as in many other social movements, a schism has now occurred between those more radical and conservative wings.

Perhaps we shouldn’t expect or demand that the divide be resolved. As with other political movements that attempt to represent social constituencies, the Pride controversy points to the impossibility of sustaining one homogenous entity – regardless of whether it’s a parade, a political party or a more amorphous “movement”. Inevitably, there are cross-cutting differences. The Māori Party was a lesson in this – it sought to represent Māori as some sort of homogenous voting group, but the contradictions of its support base meant that it broke apart (most notably with the more radical Hone Harawira departing).

Likewise, perhaps there’s simply a need for a number of different queer movements or events. Having one Pride Parade simply doesn’t work for encapsulating both the political struggle of the radical wing and the celebration of the more conservative wing.

That’s basic politics: a recognition that there are different ways in which social change should be viewed and progressed. Schisms happen – but sometimes that’s the sort of positive, political diversity we should in fact be encouraging.

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