Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden leads the First Responders Pride Unit in the 2019 Charlotte Pride Parade. (Photo Credit: Sheriff Garry McFadden)

UPDATED JUNE 18, 2020, 4:47 P.M.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Officer Jess Zinobile has attended Charlotte Pride festivities for the last five or six years, but last year was special. She and her girlfriend stood on Tryon St. in front of RiRa’s with their three children, ages six and seven. They waited for members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) to walk past in the parade.

The officers wore navy T-shirts with a CMPD logo and rainbow stickers. They walked behind the First Responders Unit Pride banner along with the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Department, Charlotte Fire Department and MEDIC.

Zinobile, a CMPD officer for 15 years, recalled seeing the smiling faces as her fellow officers walked and waved. They were parade participants, not keepers of public safety. Cheers erupted from the audience. A couple of Zinobile’s buddies gave their kids police stickers. The little ones beamed.

Pride probably will not feel the same for Zinobile and her family next year.

Last week, Charlotte Pride announced that it would no longer allow the participation of law enforcement agencies as vendors or marching contingents in the parade.

Along with the announcement, Charlotte Pride issued a resolution stating that the fight for black and brown lives is bound together with the fight for LGBTQ liberation. Along with barring law enforcement groups from participating as a unit in the parade, Charlotte Pride also is requesting that the police presence at the parade be less visible. They are calling for the discontinuation of the use of tear gas and for the redirection of police funds to invest in efforts to help marginalized communities.

The parade announcement was devastating to Zinobile and many of her fellow officers.

“I just broke down to Talisha [her partner]. There’s been so much hate thrown our way as police officers those past couple of weeks,” she said. “For me to read about that within a community that I’ve always looked to for support. It broke me down.

“That’s why I’m determined to not stay silent anymore about this and speak out from a law enforcement standpoint and try to bridge this gap for everyone to support gay pride again.”

What makes it even harder for officers like Zinobile is that the announcement took members of CMPD and the Sheriff’s Department by surprise.

“We got blindsided,” said Sheriff Garry McFadden.

A Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Department vehicle carried a rainbow flag and departmental seal in the 2019 Charlotte Pride Parade. (Photo Credit: Sheriff Garry McFadden)

His department features a Charlotte Pride banner on its website. McFadden also wanted to have a patrol vehicle painted in rainbow colors.

“I think we were blindsided,” echoed CMPD Major Sherie Pearsall. “We hadn’t had any conversation.”

The lack of communication was particularly stinging. Both departments have LGBTQ committees that address internal issues, as well as interact with gay and lesbian organizations. Each touts efforts to provide better outreach and communications between law enforcement and the LGBTQ communities.

Pearsall recalls a time that being gay and out in the police department was taboo.

“Back then it was like you better find you a closet and stay in it,” said Pearsall, who joined the department 26 years ago.

A lot of members of CMPD identify as LGBTQ, she said. The department formed the LGBTQ engagement committee after several officers expressed concerns about their treatment inside the department. Some people were still using terms that were outdated and inappropriate, she said.

The committee was formed to address an internal outcry, but then the conversation turned to how they could move the conversation forward to address LGBTQ issues. That is something that is traditionally not talked about in law enforcement, she said. Members realized that if there was a problem internally, then it likely affected how they responded to calls for service.

As a Time Out Youth Center board member, Pearsall often heard complaints from young people about how they felt about the police department. The committee began working with LGBTQ youth as a starting point to get involved. That effort has grown into leadership training for officers and educating officers about the LGBTQ community. The committee also acts as a resource for officers who may be dealing with the LGBTQ community in their patrol areas.

As the committee’s engagement grew, members suggested that they become more engaged in the Pride festival beyond public safety. They submitted an application and got accepted to walk in last year’s parade, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

“On a scale of excitement they were overjoyed about that,” Pearsall said. “It meant a lot to those being able to walk. It was a defining moment.”

It is ironic that CMPD joined the parade for the commemoration of the Stonewall Riots, protests against police raids in Greenwich Village in 1969.

The first Pride marches were held as a reminder of the struggle for equal rights for gays and lesbians. Prides were a form of protest. They were marches, not parades.

Matt Comer, communications director for Charlotte Pride, said the organization received requests over the years to return Pride to its protest roots. Barring police participation in the parade moves the organization closer to those roots, he said.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Major Sherie Pearsall (second from right) and other participants from the First Responder Pride Unit gathered at the 2019 Charlotte Pride Parade wearing their navy T-shirts and sporting rainbow stickers. (Photo Credit: Major Sherie Pearsall)

Sheriff McFadden does not agree. He has publicly criticized the decision as divisive and not reflective of the relationship that his department has with the gay community or even elements of the black community. He notes that there is a Black Lives Matter banner hanging outside the front entrance of the detention center Uptown.

Comer said people in law enforcement are welcome to participate in Pride activities, but not as representatives of their departments.

“Our action is not targeted toward an individual law enforcement agency. It’s not targeted to human beings who might happen to be employed as law enforcement officers. It’s certainly not targeted toward individual members of the LGBTQ community who might happen to work for a law enforcement agency,” Comer said. “It is an institutional response to an overarching response to an institutional problem of police brutality and violence that has gone for too long unaddressed.”

The reaction to Pride’s decision has been mixed based on feedback on the organization’s Facebook page. Feedback on McFadden’s page has been overwhelmingly supportive of him and his department. Zinobile also posted about it on her personal Facebook page, expressing that she was heartbroken. Friends posted their support for her and other officers, vowing to boycott next year’s parade.

That’s not what she wants.

“I want us all to be able to come together,” Zinobile said.

Asking police officers to attend the parade without representing their departments is like asking them to go back into the closet, she said.

“You’ve got this group that’s supposed to be accepting of all races and backgrounds, but they’re saying ‘hey, you can’t come,’” she said. “To discriminate against another group is against everything the LGBTQ community stands for.

“Events like Pride are the perfect place to recruit future CMPD officers. Law enforcement needs more people who are open-minded and welcoming to make the type of changes that Pride organizers are calling for,” she said.

Instead of barring officers, Zinobile said she wished Pride organizers had arranged a meeting between the various groups to facilitate a meaningful discussion. She hopes something like this can still happen in the future. Pearsall also hopes this moment will lead to meaningful conversations.

“We’re frustrated, we’re upset, we’re saddened,” Pearsall said, “[But] It’s important to everyone involved that we get this right. I don’t think that all bets are off. We just back up and punt and figure out a different route of how do we get back at the table… It’s a rough time, and it’s an opportune time.