HOPE OVER FEAR: change, grief & police in Mardi Gras

rodney croome arrest police in mardi gras
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Veteran LGBTIQA advocate and a past victim of police violence, Rodney Croome, reflects on change, grief and police in Mardi Gras.

Rodney Croome is a longtime LGBTIQA+ advocate. These are his personal views.

I’ve endured my fair share of police abuse.

Not long after coming out, I was arrested along with many others for staffing a gay rights stall at Hobart’s Salamanca Market.

It was a time when being gay was illegal.

I was kept in police cells, strip-searched, had my phone tapped and was threatened with gaol, all because I was a member of a group that wanted to gather signatures on a petition to decriminalise homosexuality.

During my long, silent and lonely hours in police detention, I realised the attempts of my gay forebears to avoid the police and block them out of our lives were destined to fail.

The only way forward was to reach out to those who persecuted us, no matter how hard that would be.

As a result, I have spent the last thirty years working to improve the LGBTIQA+ community’s relationship with police by educating recruits, developing more inclusive policies and improving responses to hate crime and family violence.

Demonstrable improvement

Bias and ignorance are still problems in the police service, especially for trans people and Indigenous LGBTIQA+ people.

But there has been a demonstrable, measurable improvement in police policies and practices in relation to the LGBTIQA+ community, an improvement that gives me hope further change is possible.

That improvement is most clearly demonstrated by police marching in pride parades.

It is why this former victim of police abuse is a bagpiper in the Tasmanian Police Pipe Band, a band that plays every year in the Tas Pride parade.

My hope for the future is the fundamental reason I am against the Mardi Gras’ decision to ban police from marching in this year’s parade and its subsequent deal to ban police in uniform.

The original, outright ban sent the message there is little hope for change, that change through engagement is impossible, and the only way forward is to punish and exclude the police like they once punished and excluded us.

The uniform ban is hardly better. It stigmatises police as uniquely threatening, in exactly the same way LGBTIQA+ people have been stigmatised by laws and attitudes that treated us differently, made us conceal who we are and kept us in the closet.

It’s deeply hypocritical for a community that was once told “you’re tolerated as long you don’t flaunt it”, to effectively tell the police the same.

Encouraging bullies

There are other, more immediate, reasons to oppose the ban.

There is no suggestion that the double murder that has precipitated the police ban was a hate crime by a police officer.

Instead, initial media reports focused on alleged stalking, harassment and violence by one gay man against others because of alleged past, current or wished-for romantic involvements.

Such conduct is a problem within the LGBTIQA+ community, as it is more broadly.

But it is an issue the LGBTIQA+ community is loath to discuss because of historic prejudices that say same-sex relationships are unstable, short-lived and inherently broken.

The tragic deaths of two young men provide us an opportunity to finally address abuse in our community, but that opportunity is being squandered by a focus on police.

I know from decades of supporting LGBTIQA+ people who have suffered hate crimes or family violence how reluctant some are to report to the police.

They fear being ignored or blamed even though there are now specially-trained police LGBTIQA+ liaison officers to make complaints easier.

Media reports indicate that one of the victims Jesse Baird was reluctant to report alleged abuse that occurred before their deaths.

Ejecting police from the Mardi Gras, or concealing them as civilians, sends the counterproductive message to every queer victim of crime that they have good reason not to trust the police and to keep what they’ve suffered to themselves.

That message will only encourage the stalkers and bullies.

A better Mardi Gras response to the tragic killings would have been to use the parade to highlight abuse within and against our community and boost trust in those whose job is to support victims, including the police.

Them or us

At the very least, if Mardi Gras was genuine about creating positive change, it would have set meaningful conditions for police marching in the parade.

I’m not talking about whether they wear uniforms or not, but more substantial conditions like implementing the recommendations of the NSW Commission of Inquiry into historic gay hate crimes.

Such setting of conditions worked in Queensland to ensure police met criteria set by Brisbane Pride.

That this has not occurred in Sydney makes me suspicious a factor in the decision was the misconceived notion police services are irremediably flawed and that it’s them or us.

That certainly seems to be the case when some supporters of the ban very publicly call for the police to be defunded and disbanded, or for all LGBTIQA+ officers to resign.

“Them or us” also seems to be an idea promoted by some gay-friendly media outlets. References to the alleged murderer being gay have disappeared from their coverage and been entirely replaced with references to him being a policeman.

This leaves audiences with the impression this was about anti-gay police v gay men.

It’s as if we can’t accept that one of our own did this, so we are othering the alleged murderer and scapegoating all police to erect a psychological barrier against an unpalatable reality.

It looks to me a lot like the way Tasmanian media made Port Arthur killer, Martin Bryant, seem like a monstrous and incomprehensible outsider when the uncomfortable fact was he grew up among us and was one of us.

Compassion and grief

Of course, many supporters of the police ban say they are moved by compassion for the grieving families and friends of the two murdered men. Some of these ban defenders are my friends. Their position is sincere, and I respect it deeply.

But it prompts me to ask about all the LGBTIQA+ people who have been directly harmed by the decisions of other organisations that march in Mardi Gras – the health departments that once authorised electric shock therapy, the political parties that defended anti-gay laws, the churches that denounced us, the companies that fired us?

Should we ban those organisations?

Every Pride Parade is shadowed by centuries of grief. We can’t excise that grief. Instead, we welcome, include, love, unite and celebrate to keep grief at bay.

As someone who has dedicated my life to LGBTIQA+ reform, who advocated for LGBTIQA+ inclusion from the military through to marriage, and who has seen Australia improve as a result of that inclusion, I cannot accept that excluding people, or forcing them to conceal who they are, is ever a legitimate way forward.

Progress is made through building bridges, not tearing them down. Grief for the two dead men should unite us, not drive us apart.

I choose hope over fear, just as I did thirty years ago in my lonely police cell.

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Rodney Croome

QNews, Brisbane Gay, App, Gay App, LGBTI, LGBTI News, Gay Australia

1 Comment

  1. Brian Day OAM
    4 March 2024

    Thanks for publishing this

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