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Gay Officers Action League President Opposes Pride's Uniformed Law Enforcement Ban

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

New Yorkers love their parades. And the annual Pride March has become another much-anticipated event, typically attracting millions to the city for the festivities. And like most such gatherings, it was canceled last year due to health concerns because of the pandemic. This year it is back on. But there's a situation. As part of what the organizers called an effort to minimize law enforcement presence. Last week, the organizers of NYC Pride announced a policy banning corrections and law enforcement exhibitors at all NYC pride events through 2025. Organizers said officers are welcome to attend, but not to March in uniform. The decision was controversial within the group. Members of Heritage of Pride, the organization that plans NYC pride events, voted to overturn the ban, leading one of the co-chairs to resign. And then the vote was reversed by the group's executive board, keeping the ban in place.

This has not gone over well with the NYPD and in particular, with members of the Gay Officers Action League, or GOAL. They said in a statement that NYC Pride has, quote, "long been a valued partner of our organization and its abrupt about face in order to placate some of the activists in our community is shameful," unquote. We wanted to hear more from the officers affected by this decision. So we called Brian Downey. He is the president of the Gay Officers Action League, or GOAL, and a detective with the New York City Police Department. Detective Downey, thanks so much for joining us. Welcome.

BRIAN DOWNEY: Thank you for having me, Michel. It's a great honor to be here and spend some time with you today.

MARTIN: So how long have you been going to pride? Could you just tell a little bit about what participating in Pride means to you or has meant to you?

DOWNEY: Well, that's a very interesting question, because I don't think that my story is unique, but I think it actually echoes with many people. I wasn't out until, you know, I was 28, 29 years old, fully out of the closet. And I actually came out with the assistance of GOAL. It was until I became a police officer, I was immersed with a group of people in the organization. And my first pride was actually in uniform marching on Fifth Avenue. And I say my perspective while I was doing it wasn't so much that I was celebrating my identity, but at the same time I felt more of kind of a liberation and being there in that uniform kind of showing the world that I've infiltrated this institution.

MARTIN: So, you know, people may remember that inclusion in New York City parades has been something that's been contentious over the years. I mean, people may remember the St. Patrick's Day parade. LGBT groups were not allowed to march as LGBT groups for years and leading political figures like going back to Mayor David Dinkins to boycott the parade until LGBT groups were included, which they were starting in 2014. It's my understanding that in 1996, your organization GOAL had to sue so that you could wear your uniforms. Is that correct?

DOWNEY: That is correct. That was a very, very long struggle. You know, the fight was with the NYPD to be able to wear the uniforms in the march. And it was it was beyond the uniforms. It was also, you know, people were - GOAL was denied the right to host a pride celebration at police headquarters, where, you know, a lot of other recognized fraternal societies were allowed to host a celebration.

MARTIN: The organizers say that - they point to other history here. You know, the fact that, for example, the modern LGBTQ movement was in some ways launched or one of the pivotal events in the life of the movement was the NYPD raid at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, which the NYPD officially apologized for in 2019. I want to mention but just last year, there was a separate pride march. The Queer Liberation March for Black Lives and against police brutality ended with altercations between protesters and the police.

And organizers said that this new policy was made with the intention of creating safer spaces at, quote, "a time when violence against marginalized groups, specifically BIPAC and trans communities has continued to escalate," unquote. I think their argument is that the inclusion of officers in uniform may come at the cost of everybody feeling safe. That this is in a way, a way to sort of de-escalate. What do you say to that?

DOWNEY: So we've always honored the legacy of Stonewall. Our work is continuing the legacy of Stonewall. And I'm talking about the Gay Officers Action League. Now, Heritage of Pride they're weighing in on an event that wasn't their event, right? So they're saying that, you know, what happened last year at Washington Square Park, et cetera. OK, so let's look at this for a second. I have firsthand knowledge of what happened at Washington Square Park. OK, and we're not really getting the whole story of everything that happened at Washington Square Park.

MARTIN: I don't know that - I don't know that they are they are saying specifically that that was the triggering event. I think what they're saying is that overall they want to de-emphasize law enforcement presence. And that they feel a law enforcement presence is triggering to some people and that they would like to de-emphasize that. What do you say to that?

DOWNEY: What would I say to that is they put out a list of things, right? Some of them you may be able to accomplish and some of them you may not be. I do not think that the NYPD or the city of New York is going to have an event where 2 million people sometimes are present, right? And we've seen active shooter events in this country. We've seen domestic terrorism in this country. And do I think that the police department - now, again, I don't speak for them - is just not going to show up to an event like that where a mass casualty incident is possible, right? So you say that, but you also say that GOAL can't participate in uniform. I think that that's an easier policy to set and an easy win. For whatever agenda you're looking to push.

MARTIN: But tell me more about how you feel about that. Like, tell me more about that. Like they're offering this as a compromise. They're saying that officers can still participate in the event as long as they don't wear their uniforms. What do you make of that? Like, how do you respond to that?

DOWNEY: I don't know how triggering a bunch of cops carrying trans and pride flags behind the gay banner. I mean, you live in the same world that I do. There's not that long ago in our history where we'd be talking about an SNL skit, a New Jersey state trooper carrying a pride flag and a transgender flag, one in each hand. And that's who we're penalizing. People - this is punitive, as far as I'm concerned, for all the sins of the criminal justice system, for all the sins of law enforcement. This is a punitive action against us.

MARTIN: Is there any chance you would go if you can't go in uniform, if this decision stands and they're saying you can't go wearing your uniform, would you go?

DOWNEY: Personally, I more than likely would not, and we haven't had, you know, a membership meeting or anything of that nature since this decision was handed down. So I can tell you that the overwhelming majority of people, even when I go on TV or on the radio and I say, well, we haven't had a chance to discuss what that would look like yet. I get, you know, a ton of text messages and phone calls saying, I'm not doing that. We're not doing that. So I don't think that that's really a popular sentiment right now.

You know, this is the 20th anniversary of the attacks on our nation on September 11. There's a lot of emotion right now in the profession, but every bad thing becomes lumped together into one noise. And I don't think that's fair. I don't think that's fair to my members, and I don't think it's fair to this profession.

MARTIN: That was Brian Downey. He's an NYPD detective and president of the Gay Officers Action League, or GOAL. Detective Downey, thanks so much for talking to us.

DOWNEY: Thank you for having me, Michel. You be well, and stay safe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.