The official word announcing that the board of directors of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, a non-profit that runs the annual New York City event every March 17, had invited the LGBT group the Lavender & Green Alliance to the event is a bare-bones statement indicating nothing of the decades of effort that led to the change of heart.
“Since 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, the birth of Irish Independence, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade March 17 is a special opportunity for renewed commitment to Irish values and tradition and the Irish role in the 21st century,” board chair John Lahey said in a press release.
Brendan Fay, founder and chair of the Lavender & Green Alliance, which has held its own St. Pat’s For All Parade annually in Queens since 2000, was granted a quote in the release.
“We celebrate the welcome,” he said. “March 17, 2016 will be a great day for hospitality and inclusion.”
There were signs that change was imminent. At last year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Out@NBC, a gay employee group at the affiliate WNBC-TV 4, which broadcasts the event locally, was the first out group welcomed into the parade although unlike Lavender & Green, they weren’t particularly Irish. Some Alliance members viewed the NBC group’s inclusion while their own was left out, a slap in the face.
The ongoing rancor had led to significant tension. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio this year announced the end of a two-year boycott of the 253-year-old event, the largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the country. He marched in and spoke at Sunday’s St. Pat’s for All Parade.
“The St. Patrick’s Day Parade is a New York City tradition but for years, Irish LGBT New Yorkers could not show their pride,” he told the Associated Press in a March 2 story. “Finally they can celebrate their heritage by marching in a parade that now represents progress and equality.”
The parade, held rain or shine, begins on Fifth Avenue at 44th Street and ends on Fifth Avenue uptown at 79th Street. It typically runs from about 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. About 200,000 people are in the parade each year. About 300 are expected to march under the Alliance banner.
So why now? Fay told the AP de Blasio’s boycott had an effect. He was the first mayor in more than 20 years to refuse to participate,” the Associated Press reports.
Fay told the Blade there “were many factors bringing us to this historic moment,” and cites boycotts by other elected officials, some of which go back 25 years, pressure from the New York City Council, letters of support from straight Irish New Yorkers, pressure from beer companies like Guinness and Heineken that threatened to pull out and more.
“It was the persistent determination of activism of a determined and hope-filled community,” Fay says. “Not just the LGBT community, but the Irish community as a whole.”
So why was it such a big deal? And in New York City, of all places?
The controversy ties in deeply with the parade’s Catholic roots. First held in 1762, the parade marches up Fifth Avenue and is reviewed from the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. In the mid 1800s, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), an Irish-Catholic fraternal organization, became the official sponsor of the parade. Although in 1992, the National AOH directed all its chapters to form separate corporations to run their various parades, the parade’s roots in the Roman Catholic Church — Ireland was essentially a pawn in the Protestant Reformation battles between Italy and England — are strong and deep.
Although the St. Pat’s for All Parade has developed into its own thing and will continue (there were about 100 contingents in the March 6 event), Fay says the significance of the Alliance’s inclusion in the official parade cannot be overstated.
“History will be made for the first time on March 17,” he says. “We’ll be carrying the green Alliance banner and we’re all really feeling the moment. There’s so much joy in the Irish community of New York City and back home in Ireland as well.”
Dignity New York, an LGBT Catholic group that’s the local chapter of DignityUSA, members — of which Fay is one — have been watching this drama unfold for years. They say it just took time for the strong opposition to play out.
“Brendan is much more well versed in the politics of this and all the ins and outs … but I think gradually, you know, the people who wanted the group to march finally won out and I think it was a matter of attrition,” says Jeff Stone, a spokesperson for Dignity New York. “Eventually the older, more conservative members who were against it either left or died or whatever and I understand that Barbara Jones, the consul general of Ireland in New York, tried to urge the committee to let them march. That’s also in line with what’s happening in Ireland, especially now with the pro-same-sex marriage vote. The people of that country have clearly spoken.”
Despite studies that show disparities on all kinds of issues between official Catholic Church teaching and the laity, the anti-gay theology is well documented. As just one example, earlier this month the AOH issued a press release calling for Disney/ABC to “immediately apologize” for its new gay-themed sitcom “The Real O’Neals.” Although careful not to slam gays, it cites Irish stereotypes, anti-Catholicism and gay activist/writer Dan Savage, the show’s executive producer, in a scathing assessment.
“Dan Savage has a well-documented hostility to the Catholic Church,” the statement says. “(We) question the wisdom and motivations of Disney/ABC giving him a national platform to perpetuate his intolerance.”
Stone says movement on same-sex marriage, both in Ireland and the U.S., welcoming gays into the parade, the use of more inclusive language among Catholic leaders and more are all aspects to the policy change. He also says the tide has shifted enough that there were economic considerations as well.
“It’s just not a good situation for them when there’s all this bitterness and controversy surrounding the parade,” he says. “It’s counter to the law in Ireland, it’s not good for tourism. I think they wanted to get this resolved so that the parade could return to being a symbol of celebration and of Irish-American pride and not a source of division and bitterness that it had become for many people. The parade lost a lot of sponsors over this.”
Fay says the change makes a powerful statement.
“I think it’s conveying a message about equality and what I call cultural hospitality,” he says. “There’s an overall feeling of excitement and just really great and joyful expectation. … I’ve really come to appreciate how important cultural gatherings and parades are in our lives and communities.”