Why the Ethical Society Won’t be Marching Downtown This Year

The core value of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, as a Humanist congregation, is the worth and dignity of every person. Our community exists to help create a world in which the inherent dignity of everyone is recognized and respected. This is why the Ethical Society has supported the equal dignity of LGBTQIA+ people for decades: long before other congregations were “open and affirming,” the Ethical Movement was loudly proclaiming that lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and all other queer people should be treated with respect and afforded equal civil rights. This is why our movement has trained and hired openly queer clergy leaders and staff for decades: indeed, of the current staff of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, half are members of the LGBTQIA+ community including our two Leaders! This is why Kate Lovelady, our senior clergy person, for many years refused to perform marriage ceremonies while the law discriminated against same sex couples. This is why we have marched in the Pride Parade for many years, proudly carrying our banner and supporting our LGBTQIA+ members.

And this is why it was so difficult when we decided not to march in the Pride Parade this year, following the decision to readmit armed and uniformed police officers after they had agreed to march out of uniform instead. Since I have received many questions from our members and from the broader community about this decision, I’d like to take a moment to share some of the context, to explain why we came to the decision we made.

Over the past few years there has been increasing tension between the LGBTQIA+ community (particularly transgender people and queer people of color) in St. Louis and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Numerous incidents have led to a total breakdown of trust, including but not limited to:

Many local LGBTQIA+ activists feel that these incidents are demonstrative of profound problems within the STLMPD – problems which threaten the liberty and safety not only of LGBTQIA+ people, but of all residents in the city. These concerns are shared by groups such as the ACLU, which sued the city police in 2017 over its unconstitutional behavior. Jeffrey Mittman, Executive Director of the ACLU of Missouri wrote in 2018:

“Officers used vague and perplexing ordinances to demand arbitrarily that free speech activity end when they decided. They used pepper spray and tear gas to punish people they disagreed with. And they destroyed phones and cameras and deleted files to avoid being caught engaging in such nefarious acts…A large group of St. Louis police officers wielding batons provocatively chanted, “Whose streets? Our streets!” the night of the infamous kettling incident. Earlier, they made unlawful arrests and used illegal force against protesters.”

This is not, then, a problem of a “few bad apples” poisoning the reputation of an otherwise fine police force. Rather, it is indicative of a deeply broken culture of policing, in which the police see portions of the community – including members of the LGBTQIA+ community – as an enemy to be violently subdued rather than citizens to be served. This is entirely incompatible with the core values of the Ethical Society. The STLMPD is failing in its duty to recognize and respect the equal dignity of the citizens who employ them, meting out “justice” in a highly politicized manner based on their own judgment regarding who is worthy of protection and who is not. I believe it is our ethical duty, as those who seek to stand for the dignity of all people, to speak out when one of our most important and powerful social institutions so spectacularly loses its way.

This, I imagine, is part of the reason why a number of our LGBTQIA+ members expressed deep concern when the police reneged on their agreement not to march in uniform in this year’s pride parade. To be clear: the Chief of Police, the Mayor, and the Pride Board had come to an agreementthat, in recognition of the 50th anniversary of Stonewall (an uprising against police brutality which Pride Parades commemorate), police would march in the parade without uniform and without firearms. This agreement coincided with the decision by the Pride Board to make the Metro Trans Umbrella Group (a group representing the trans and gender non-conforming residents of the St. Louis Metro area) the Grand Marshal of the Parade. MTUG agreed to march on the condition that police would not be in uniform, due to the continued harassment faced by trans people at the hands of the police, and the many problems listed above. Less than two weeks before the Parade, the police, Mayor, and Pride Board broke that agreement, betraying the trans community’s trust and leaving MTUG in the lurch. This led to a number of Ethical Society members requesting that we withdraw from participation in PrideFest entirely: they feel betrayed, angry, and unsafe, and they no longer wished us to be present.

However, I was aware that likely not every LGBTQIA+ member of the Ethical Society likely shared those concerns, so instead of making a decision based only on the feelings of those who had contacted me, I decided to ask our LGBTQIA+ members to discuss our options in an open forum where they could air their views. We had that meeting on Sunday, and on the basis of this meeting, the Ethical Society decided that we will 1) not pull out of PrideFest entirely, but rather maintain an institutional presence at PrideFest, keeping our table and participating in the interfaith service; 2) invite our members to march, instead of in the parade downtown, in a separate march organized by the trans members of our community on Friday evening; and 3) encourage our members to march with other organizations in the Pride Parade if they wish.

The Ethical Society of course believes that police officers should be treated with dignity and respect as human beings. Everybody, of every profession and regardless of their actions, should be treated in accordance with their inherent worth and dignity. Police officers choose to do work which is difficult and often dangerous – I am particularly conscious of this in a week in which a North County officer was fatally shot in the line of duty. But asking police to march in a Pride Parade without their uniforms or weapons – essentially asking them to conform to a dress code – is not demeaning or a threat to their dignity. Police were still welcome to march as individuals, and were never (as was erroneously reported) banned from the parade. Community groups like Pride must be allowed to set the parameters for participation in their own events – otherwise communities lose control of the very events which are meant to celebrate them. Furthermore, the numerous deep-seated problems with the STLMPD – problems which the force has been incredibly slow to address, while resisting meaningful oversight – do not augur well for any future changes.

I feel for LGBTQIA+ police officers who may have been put in a challenging and unpleasant position. Sometimes, when we are called to make difficult moral judgments, it is not always easy to see how the dignity of all people involved can be respected – and I think this is one of those cases. But it is clear to me that the Ethical Society’s responsibility is to 1) respect the wishes of our LGBTQIA+ members and 2) to follow the lead of the people most affected by this issue. Today, the Metro Trans Umbrella Group announced that they have resigned as Grand Marshal for the parade, and instead will march only on Friday evening. The Ethical Society will be marching with them.