With Pride Month in full swing, conversations are happening within the LGBTQ+ community about police presence at Pride events across the nation. The community has historically had a strained relationship with police and policing. New York City, for example, banned uniformed police at Pride in 2021, and the ban stands until 2025. On the other hand, despite some opposition to police presence at Motor City Pride (especially after neo-Nazi protesters received a police escort at the 2019 event), event organizers allow uniformed police officers to march in the parade but hired private security, which they called a “middle of the road” approach that led to no media reports of incidents at this year’s parade.

Laws criminalizing same-sex relationships went on the books in Michigan as early as 1931. James McQuaid, a doctoral candidate at Wayne State University, says Michigan’s anti-sodomy laws meant women in same-sex relationships could be arrested and face five-year sentences for a first offense. Men in same-sex relationships could face arrest and sentences of 15 years or more. Public trials “outed” LGBTQ+ individuals, putting their employment, housing and relationships with their family and community at risk. 

In an attempt to mitigate harm, the LGBTQ+ community published resources to support those facing criminalization. In 1970, a community organization called the Gay Liberation Front founded a newspaper called the “Detroit Liberator,” later known as the “Detroit Gay Liberator” and then the “Gay Liberator.” An early edition published “Your Rights in Case of Arrest.” 

In 1971, LGBTQ+ organizers formed the Detroit Gay Alliance to fight criminalization and job discrimination. One of the organization’s main focuses was to challenge accosting and soliciting ordinance (A&S) charges, which fined or imprisoned gay men cruising or accused of cruising in public spaces. 

The Liberator reported at the time that Detroit Police Department (DPD) Commissioner John Nichols, also known for introducing the infamous Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets (STRESS) program in 1971, oversaw a 42% increase in A&S charges and a 90% increase in cross-dressing-related charges during his tenure.

State law also criminalizes disorderly conduct and solicitation. In a 1999 report, then-attorney Rudy Serra detailed a story of undercover DPD officers impersonating gay men at the Detroit Eagle club, a gay “leather” bar. After asking a gay man to partake in consensual, unpaid sexual acts, undercover officers arrested him on solicitation and disorderly conduct charges. DPD never read his Miranda rights and held him for 17 hours. The charges were eventually dismissed when officers refused to provide evidence. 

The end of the 20th century did not mark an end to police harassment against the LGBTQ+ community. In 2002, the city settled a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union over claims that it had entrapped 500 men in Rouge Park over a period of time and ticketed them for flirting with or talking to other men under an “annoying persons” act. While LGBTQ+ community relations with police have improved, violence against members of the community — particularly for gender-nonconforming individuals — continues to be a pressing issue. 

Alex (she/her) is an urban studies and public history student at Wayne State University and a Detroit Documenter. She has a special interest in researching Metro-Detroit history and seeks to connect current issues with historical context to find solutions. She believes we must understand our past to...