The last time gay and lesbian Irish American groups were allowed to march in the South Boston Saint Patrick’s Day Parade it was 1993 and “Informer” by Snow was the number one song in the country.
The following year, the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council, which organizes the event, canceled the parade because they didn’t want to comply with a Massachusetts court ruling that ordered the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the green spectacle. But in 1995, the Supreme Court ruled that the the private sponsors had the right to choose who participated in the parade.
Gays and lesbians have been fighting ever since to find a way into the event, the largest annual parade in Boston. They’ve pressured politicians and sponsors but so far, their efforts have had little impact.
For a brief moment it appeared that this year’s parade would be different: A deal brokered by Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and South Boston Congressman Stephen Lynch would have allowed a group of gays and lesbians to march in the parade under the banner of LGBT Veterans for Equality. But that agreement fell apart when the parade organizers and the Veterans for Equality couldn’t agree on the number of veterans the group had and whether they could march openly. The parade's stance is that it's fine with gay people marching—they just can’t identify themselves as gay, which obviously defeats the purpose of them being in the parade at all.
Supporters of the parade organizers have argued that gays should be happy with being allowed to march at all—why is the St. Patrick’s Day Parade such a big deal anyway? There are plenty of other parades in the Commonwealth that pick and choose their participants, including a variety of gay pride parades, or so the argument goes.
But LGBT activists are upset that the St. Patrick’s Day Parade—which has been around since 1901 and is one of the city’s most cherished traditions—is so open about discriminating against people based on sexual orientation.
“There’s no other civic or cultural institution of any kind in the state of Massachusetts that I am aware of that went all the way to the Supreme Court to enforce its right to exclude openly LGBT people, and that’s what makes this parade so important,” said Mass Equality Executive Director Kara Coredini.
Kara told me gay people need to be allowed to march openly because being forced to stay in the closet is a major problem in the gay community. She understands that the importance of having gay people parade under banners identifying them as LGBT may be difficult for some people—especially, perhaps, the conservative Irish Americans who run the parade—to understand, which creates a challenge for gay rights activists.
“This parade is really a symbol of that challenge,” said Kara.
An alternative St. Patrick’s parade that would welcome LGBT people, like the one recently held in New York, is not an acceptable compromise for Mass Equality—the activists want to be a part of the parade rather than forced to start their own event in protest.
The controversy has resulted in a lot of bad publicity for the parade and its organizers—most Massachusetts politicians are skipping the event, and Sam Adams, Boston’s most famous beer company, just pulled out of sponsoring the parade. Last week, in the midst of the public argument, the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council issued a statement that read, in part, “We are approached by all types of groups. Some of which try to destroy the integrity of not only this parade, but our faith, this town, and our Country. And to those we say, ‘No!, stay home, Not in my town.’ Rest assured, we will continue to exclude anyone that tries to compromise the public’s enjoyment of this parade.”
Rhetoric like that indicates clearly that the parade organizers are out of step with much of the rest of traditionally liberal Massachusetts when it comes to LGBT issues. Kara admitted that it was unusual that gays and lesbians were still fighting over the parade ten years after Massachusetts became the first state in the union to legalize same-sex marriage.
Hope Wat Bucci, an eight-year active duty veteran of the Army and resident of Boston's North Shore, said that marching openly in the parade means so much not just to her but to other LGBT veterans. She likened the exclusion of openly gay veterans from the parade to her time in the military during the Don't Ask Don't Tell era.
"When someone says that they won't welcome LGBT veterans in 2014, that's a problem, and, because of this parade, it has become public knowledge," said Hope.
The parade is just as important for veterans in Boston as it is Irish-Americans because it commemorates the early Revolutionary War victory over the British in Boston known as Evacuation Day.
"The time has come. My hope is that someday down the line we will all be able to march together," said Hope. She finds her exclusion from the parade hard to comprehened given the major strides the gay rights movement has made in recent years. When openly gay soldiers can serve in the military, why can't they march in the St. Patrick's Day Parade?
“It’s definitely ironic that we’re still having this conversation,” Kara said, “but I think it goes to show that, what we know is true at a broader level, there’s more work to do.”