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Toronto cops don lavender for Pride’s Trans March

When organizer Nicki Ward is asked about having members of the Toronto Police join this year's Transgender March down Yonge Street, she opts to quote a line from Casablanca.

"This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

June 28 will mark the first time the police have participated in the Pride-affiliated Trans March, which began in 2009. Not only will officers join the march, they'll do so in uniform, complete with adornments in lavender — the official, gender-neutral colour of the event.

"The history between the police and the trans community in Toronto hasn't been the greatest, so for us to be invited to join them is a huge step in that relationship," said Special Const. Joshua Wilson, co-chair of the Toronto Police's LGBT internal support network (ISN).

Although the board of the Trans March voted unanimously to allow police to march in uniform, it wasn't easy to reach that consensus. Because trans people are often marginalized, even within the LGBT community, Ward said they're more likely to have run-ins with police, and those encounters are "not uniformly positive."

"There was a lot of discussion backwards and forwards, but everyone was thrilled the discussion was going on," she said. "At the end of the day, we realized the messaging the police service was engaged in was twofold: there was a public component to it, but they were also focused on changing attitudes internally.

"We felt that kind of messaging was best done in uniform."

Wilson agreed.

"The main thing for the ISN is to be public," he said. "We're supported by the chief, we're supported by command, but just being public is what's going to help us the most."

 Police Const. Danielle Bottineau, LGBT liaison officer and LGBT ISN executive director, marches in the 2012 Pride parade with her partner Karin.

Police Const. Danielle Bottineau, LGBT liaison officer and LGBT ISN executive director, marches in the 2012 Pride parade with her partner Karin.

Since taking over as co-chair last year, Wilson has worked hard to increase the profile of the ISN both inside and outside the force. He and his colleagues routinely lead education seminars for their fellow officers, and he's done outreach work in local schools, as well as with groups like The 519 Church Street Community Centre.

In particular, the police have worked with The 519's newcomer settlement program, helping new LGBT arrivals find local support networks.

"Many of them are fleeing here because of their sexual orientation, and they're often afraid of the police. They couldn't be out of the closet; they couldn't live their lives without being in fear," he said. "It's just amazing to help them understand that in this country they can be gay and trust the police and that there are police here who are also gay."

In uniform, out of the closet

Of the 8,000 members of the Toronto Police Service, Wilson said he knows of at least 50 who openly identify as something other than heterosexual. He admits the number is small, and likely not illustrative of how many LGBT officers are actually part of the force, but says it's a start.

"It's powerful whenever anyone sees someone in uniform admitting to being LGBT," he said. "It's perceived as such a masculine, male-dominated industry and can be an intimidating profession to work in as a gay person. Myself, as a gay man, you have all these expectations that you have to be macho, but when I got hired, I told myself there's no way I'm going back into the closet.

"I never went into the closet in my career with Toronto Police, and I've had no issue at all."

That's a far cry from the Operation Soap raids of 1981, where police arrested and charged some 300 men for frequenting gay bathhouses. The raids sparked a series of protests that eventually evolved into Pride Week, and are widely seen as the Canadian equivalent of the 1968 Stonewall riots in New York.

Now, the raids are part of the sensitivity training given to all new recruits by Wilson and the other members of the ISN.

"We give them that history as to why the gay community might have a bad taste in their mouths when it comes to the police," he said.

Stop. Bullying. Now.

One of the ISN's largest projects is a recent video tackling the issue of bullying. What was initially envisioned as a brief YouTube clip turned into an 11-minute film, introduced by Chief Bill Blair and featuring interviews with LGBT officers.

Wilson says his group was inspired by the "It Gets Better" movement, but wanted to take the message further.

"We really wanted to get on board with the anti-bullying thing, but it's not enough to say it gets better," he said. "We have to say it has to stop right now."

The video was unveiled in April at North York Collegiate, but Wilson hopes to roll the spot out to high schools across the GTA this fall.

Although the video lambasts bullies of all stripes, it also takes time to remind bystanders that it's not OK to be silent while others are mistreated.

"Allies are the most important thing for any group that's being discriminated against. They're the ones who will fight for them and rally for them. They're the ones that will make societal change," Wilson said. "So if you don't agree with something, say something."

Pride Toronto takes place June 21 to 30 and the Trans March is scheduled for June 28 at 8 p.m.

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