This year marked a time of abundant shifts, as the collective United States begins looking toward the post-vaccinated, “new normal” that is 2021 and beyond. We are collectively grappling with the deaths of hundreds of thousands due to COVID-19, while also dealing with abundant social conflicts and human rights conversations that have reached a head, both in the Colorado community and the U.S. as a whole.
If we flash back to June 2020, we would see the Pride events and marches replaced with protests, following the death of George Floyd in May and the elevated visibility of the death of Elijah McClain at the hands of police in Aurora in 2019. The last year saw multiple lawsuits against Aurora and Denver Police, some around the treatment of BLM protesters and others by citizens citing excessive force under new police accountability bills.
This is on top of the multiple investigations into the death of McClain and all-around increased visibility around police procedures and Colorado legislation surrounding them.
Following the influx of conversations and traumatic events hitting close to home within the Colorado community, June 2021 was just around the corner. Pride Month’s origins date back to the riots at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, an embrace of LGBTQ Pride and livelihood and a protest against police and their treatment of queer and trans people.
And as the city where it all happened, New York Pride made headlines earlier this year, announcing they would not allow police participation at their Pride event, not just this year, but until June 2025.
It was a topic nationwide, and following the recent events that had Colorado police at the forefront of conversations surrounding policy, racial justice, and accountability, Denver Pride faced the same conversation.
Denver Pride Addresses Police Participation
In May, Denver Pride announced they would not allow police to participate this year, though the decision-making process has been years in the making and followed feedback from community forums; staff of The Center (which organizes Denver Pride); and queer, trans Black Indigenous people of color (QTBIPOC).
Rex Fuller, The Center’s CEO, says the decision was not an easy one to make, as they have had a healthy and beneficial relationship with the Denver-area police departments and individual officers. While he and The Center recognize the sacrifices of officers, especially LGBTQ cops, within the community, he says the events surrounding the death of Elijah McClain and subsequent investigations against local police departments forced them to reconsider their stance.
“The question is, ‘Is it appropriate to lend our endorsement to those agencies that are currently under investigation?’” Fuller says. “And looking at the history of the Pride movement, which started with protests against law enforcement harassment of the community, and looking at the history of The Center, which very much has its roots in objecting to police harassment of a community—that tipped the scales and made the decision, especially this year.”
Police were still at Denver Pride to meet regulations around public safety, and 2021’s Pride event did not feature a parade, which was standard pre-COVID and boasted police participation. The specific decision was around uniformed police participation in Pride events as an agency, and Fuller says the reception afterward was fairly negative, despite the community input that led to the decision.
“When people talk about inclusion—that’s what’s made this decision so hard, is knowing that it automatically excludes some really important people to us,” Fuller says. “But, by saying no to a police agency or law enforcement agency, I have to ask, ‘Who are we saying yes to?’”
Aurora Pride Takes a Different Stance
Denver Pride is the largest Pride event in Colorado, though Aurora Pride has recently emerged as a queer-focused, beachside bash off the reservoir. The event is held in August and took a different stance on police participation.
Aurora Pride released a statement following Denver Pride’s announcement, conversely stating that they would allow police participation. Aurora Pride Executive Director Zander Oklar echoed Fuller’s sentiment: it was a very tough question to consider from the beginning. They consulted organizations in Aurora and around the state, gaining input to make the most informed decision, but the idea of “Pride For All” resonated deeply, and they felt excluding police did not work in conjunction with that idea.
“We really struggled with being exclusionary, you know, because what we see with our police at Pride is, they’re all volunteers; almost all of the officers that come to our event to volunteer to work are part of the LGBT community,” Oklar says.
He says that part of working toward accountability and fixing the issues within local police departments, and departments across the country, is allowing them to be part of the conversation, “We just feel like, you know, breaking those connections is just not going to help us get there.”
While Oklar says the Aurora Pride Board has heard from people who disagree with their decision, the majority of community input was supportive, specifically from officers, city officials, and nonprofits. That said, he recognizes that this is an ongoing conversation, and Aurora Pride is working with Denver’s Black Pride event and the NAACP, alongside law enforcement, to continue these conversations.
Aurora PD Responds
APD currently has its first openly queer police chief, Vanessa Wilson, along with many LGBTQ officers who have a storied history in Colorado’s Pride events. Chris Amsler is one of them, the executive officer to the chief of police and LGBTQ liaison officer at Aurora Police Department. He remembers his first experience working at Pride 19 years ago, set up with first responders and grand marshals at the parade before he was out at work.
Amsler recalls reaching out to Wilson years later in 2010 and encouraging the department to become more actively involved in the LGBTQ community, which led to their participation at Denver Pride, promoting community outreach and recruiting at the event. He says the reception was overwhelmingly positive, as the department became more involved in Denver Pride over the years, which was part of the reason he and his colleagues were disheartened by Denver Pride’s decision.
“It feels like we’ve been excluded from our own community, but also, too, there’s the bigger picture of, we understand that, you know, members of the community don’t trust police right now, that there’s a very tense relationship right now because of things that have come to light,” Amsler says. “In the past, you know, George Floyd and social reforms and criminal justice reforms that are taking place—but we really feel like, if we’re not able to be a part of these events, and have those positive interactions or have those discussions with folks, how are we ever going to move forward?”
Amsler says the department has kept in communication with The Center and is “optimistic that we will one day get a chance to be able to march down Colfax again.”
The Aurora Police Department released “A New Way” in 2020, a self-described “plan of action to restore the community’s trust through a new way of policing.”
The plan includes a comprehensive review of the Aurora Police Department, an evaluation of department leadership, looking into training procedures for officers, increasing transparency with a focus on accountability and review of policy (notably, taking the investigations of the Elijah McClain case into consideration), and engaging and including diverse, critical voices within the community.
A Community Response
Tara Jae is one of those voices within the community, as the co-creator of Denver’s Black Pride event, executive director of Youth Seen (which focuses on mental health and wellness for QTBIPOC folks), and a new Aurora Pride board member. They say that The Center’s stance was huge in not only impacting the community greatly but also telling the community that they are listening.
“It’s very much an opportunity for law enforcement to come to the table and come to the community and be open to what the community has to say,” Jae says. “It is not in any way to shame them. It is not to say they can’t be a part of it in any way. However, being in uniform means that there are consequences of wearing that uniform, because of behaviors, incidences, and also just how our society is functioning around law enforcement right now.”
Jae observed a clear response in their line of work: a resounding “Yeah, it’s about time, and why did it take so long?”
Jae also sees this as an ongoing conversation, which was part of the reason they joined the Aurora Pride Board, under the pretense that there would be a larger conversation about what law enforcement at Pride should look like. They also say that it’s an opportunity to collaborate with other Pride events in the area, like the emerging Broomfield Pride, and figure out how these different events can work together in these discussions on a larger scale, as a collective Colorado community.
Alison Coombs is also an Aurora Pride Board member and the first out, LGBTQ member of Aurora City Council. She recalls the conversations that initially began following the Denver Pride announcement, which were often challenging as a person who has taken the position of demanding police accountability.
She brings up the open letter written by Sgt. Bill Hummel following Denver Pride’s announcement. “From his perspective, this is how far we’ve come, is from having the first Pride be a riot against police violence, to having our LGBTQ police officers in our community.”
She says that she didn’t feel it was her place to exclude individual LGBTQ officers as members of the community, though she recognizes the implications of uniformed police officers, which can often create fear among community members who have experienced violence at the hands of police.
Coombs said that there is not a clear answer, but a main focus must be looking at police accountability alongside the role of police, and policing in a broader sense.
“(It means) starting from a position of welcoming and mutual respect, with the recognition that the conversations can, and probably will, still get difficult over time,” Coombs says. “But, that we’re not going to have the conversations at all, I don’t think, if we just say, ‘You’re not allowed. Go away. Stay away from us and our things,’ not acknowledging that, for some of those folks, they feel it’s their thing, too, you know?”
Looking Forward and Continuing the Conversation
Oklar and Amsler both said they have not heard anything about anti-police protests or demonstrations at Aurora Pride, but they would respond to that situation with the same procedures they use to respond to anti-LGBTQ, or other, protests at these events. Fuller at The Center and Oklar at Aurora Pride both voiced respect for the police agencies and for the different approaches the other events decided to take this year.
The events of the past several years have allowed for a new perspective on laws around policing in the state. Last year, Colorado ended qualified immunity for police. Politicians like Representative Leslie Herod have made substantial progress in addressing issues surrounding criminal justice, addressing the use of ketamine in police arrests and introducing bills aiming to create more transparency, and accountability in Colorado police departments addressing the effect a lack of these policies has on Black communities.
Looking forward, the resonating theme from everyone recognized that these are issues with a storied history, which will need active involvement and ongoing, albeit critical and challenging, conversation around accountability to work to resolve.
“Before we can have ‘Pride For All,’ we actually need to acknowledge how Pride started: it started as a resistance toward the police,” Jae says. “So, once we can actually acknowledge that and bring that to the forefront, then maybe we can have conversations, to continue conversations, and what it might mean for law enforcement to be involved. If they want it to be inclusive, let’s start talking about acknowledging the past, the present, and what we could be doing in the future.”
Find the original story on OUT FRONT Magazine‘s website.