Toronto

LGBT officers shouldn't have to 'put aside' their identity as police to march in Pride, expert says

LGBT officers says they are caught in the middle of the fractured relationship between the community and police, as offices are banned from marching in uniform in the Pride parade for the third straight year.

LGBT officers are caught in the middle of the debate, professor says

The last time police officers in uniform marched in the Toronto Pride Parade was in 2016. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

Constable Brian Mitchell says one of his proudest moments was holding his husband's hand and wearing his police uniform while marching in the York Pride Parade last weekend.

"I'm very proud to be able to wear my uniform and show people that it's okay to be gay or be part of the LGTBQ community as a police officer," the York Regional Police officer said.

"Hopefully [that] inspires others to join the service and make a difference."

But that won't be the case at this Sunday's Pride Parade in Toronto.

Police officers are banned for the third straight year from marching in uniform, which has left LGBT officers caught in the middle of the fractured relationship between their community and the Toronto Police Service.

Brian Mitchell is a police constable and the co-chair of Serving with Pride, a not-for-profit that provides LGBT training and education to Ontario police services. (Supplied by Brian Mitchell)

Mitchell, who is also the co-chair of Serving with Pride, a not-for-profit that provides LGBT training and education to Ontario police services, says he doesn't feel the need to march in Toronto's parade in uniform when officers have been told not to.

"I still have a lot more to learn before I can effectively show that community that I've done my part to change," he said. "I think it's up to everybody else to do the same."  

A question of identity

Joe Couto, the director of government relations and communications for the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, says telling LGBT officers they can't march in uniform is forcing them to separate themselves from part of who they are.

"[It's] asking police officers to put aside part of their identity. You have to understand the police culture is all based on identity," he said. "The police identity ingrains itself into who you are and what you are."

But Olivia Nuamah, executive director of Pride Toronto, says the organization isn't shunning LGBT officers or forcing them to turn away from their identity. She says the issue isn't with individual officers, but policing as a whole.

[It's] asking police officers to put aside part of their identity.- Joe Couto, Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police

"Policing as an institution, as a practice, has been problematic to this community and that needs to change," she said.  

Uniformed officers last marched in the parade in 2016 when Black Lives Matter Toronto halted the parade and demanded uniformed police be banned.

Olivia Nuamah, executive director of Pride Toronto, says she'd like to see more engagement between the LGBT community and the police service. (CBC)

They argued that some members of the community are triggered by the sight of police uniforms and guns. 

Nuamah said officers are banned from marching in uniform indefinitely and that she doesn't plan on revisiting the issue anytime soon. 

Caught in the middle

Couto, a Justice Studies professor at the University of Guelph-Humber who has published two studies focusing on LGBT police officers, says they are caught in the middle of a bigger conflict — a historic, "antagonistic" relationship between police and the LGBT community.

Joe Couto, the director of government relations and communications for the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, is also a professor who has published two studies on LGBT police officers. (Supplied by Joe Couto)

"I think they're sad more than anything," he said. "I think they're sad that they would like to just be part of the community and be part of building rather than this sort of standstill."

Nuamah said some progress has been made between the two groups but that the case of serial killer Bruce McArthur, who was convicted of killing eight men connected with the community, and questions about how police handled it, is a big step back.  

 "It barely feels like progress when you're losing lives."

It barely feels like progress when you're losing lives.- Olivia Nuamah, Pride Toronto

Couto said he believes the service handled the community's concerns about the case well.

He said LGBT officers being in the middle of the strained relationship adds to a work environment that can already be challenging.

"They are dealing with a police culture that has traditionally been heterosexual, and what we call hyper-masculine," he said. "In my study, [the officers] say emphatically they want to be gay police officers in their communities. That's the bottom line."

Limited data

Mitchell says he was the first gay man to come out within the Hamilton Police Service when he did it in 2012. Mitchell says he was 15 when police officers told his parents he was gay without his permission.

"I vowed ever since that day I would be a great police officer and be a strong voice for those who can't," he said.

The number of self-identified LGBT officers in Ontario is small. While some services track the statistics through surveys, complete numbers aren't available. 

Mitchell says about 1.8 per cent of respondents identify as LGBT in the surveys that are completed and returned. 

The Ontario Police College began collecting data on self-identified sexual orientation of recruits in 2008, according to Couto. Between then and 2017, an average of 1.4 per cent of recruits identified as lesbian while 0.4 per cent of men identified as gay.

Education is key

Couto, Mitchell and Nuamah all say open dialogue between the two groups is important to repairing a fractured relationship.

Nuamah says she'd like to have more community engagement with the Toronto Police Service and hopes police will listen more in the future to members of the LGBT community who come forward with information and tips.

Mitchell said progress is being made, but change takes time. He says education on both sides is the key.

"I think if we were to make sure that all of us are educated in LGBT [issues] that we would be able to deliver more effective policing services."

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