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The St. Patrick’s Day Parade LGBT Ban Is Distinctly American

The fight over the banning of LGBT groups appears to have shifted in favor of the gay Irish as politicians and businesses push inclusivity.
Photo by Rachael Voorhees

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and the Fightin’ Irish are at it once again. Every year the holiday brings with it a battle over the exclusion of LGBT Irish groups from the nation’s largest parades in New York and Boston — a fight whose momentum appears to have shifted in favor of the gay Irish as politicians and businesses throw their support behind inclusivity.

Mayors Marty Walsh of Boston and Bill de Blasio of New York are boycotting the parades in their cities because of the exclusion of gays, and earlier this week Boston Beer Co., the maker of Sam Adams, withdrew from the Boston parade. Mass Equality, the Boston LGBT non-profit group, helped create an atmosphere that discouraged most Boston officials from participating — including all ten of this year’s gubernatorial candidates.

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Mayor Walsh attempted to broker negotiations between parade organizers and a LGBT veterans group with no luck. He expressed hope on Saturday for a breakthrough, but repeated that he would not attend if no deal was made. Walsh was trying to borrow a move from former New York mayor David Dinkins, who marched in 1991 alongside the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization (ILGO) in its only appearance in parade history. ILGO's application to march was denied that year, but another Irish group called Division 7 invited them to join their contingent. Division 7 was banned from marching the following year.

After Dinkins and ILGO were showered with beer and booed for nearly 40 blocks along the route, the ex-mayor compared the experience to civil rights marches in the South: “It was like marching in Birmingham, Alabama.” Police later arrested two men for throwing beer at the mayor.

Irish Queers organizer Emmaia Gelman told VICE News that she's been protesting the parade for 19 years — half of her life. Last year she and fellow Irish Queers leader John Francis Mulligan took a break: “We were exhausted. We felt like these guys have run our lives for 20 years.”

But their dedication has paid off, she said. “The parade is now more famously anti-gay than it is Irish.”

William Peat, a researcher and gay rights activist from Dublin who has studied the Irish diaspora, told VICE News he doesn't think the exclusion of LGBT marchers from the parade has much to do with it being Irish.

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“We as a society in Ireland have gone leaps and bounds in our acceptance of LGBT,” he said. “In Limerick, famously the most Catholic city in Ireland — as well as Cork and Belfast — they allow the LGBT marchers. I have never personally seen any animosity towards it.”

Peat said the politics were distinctly American: “When you’re dealing with diasporas, separating the two identities, Irish versus Catholic, is where the flashpoint is coming in. It gets weirder because New Yorkers are afraid to tackle it because it’s an Irish identity thing, and Irish are afraid to tackle it because it’s an American thing.”

The St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York is closely tied to the Catholic Church: it begins with a service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where Cardinal Timothy Dolan surveys the march, and was long organized by Irish Catholic stronghold Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH).

A bartender at the AOH outpost in Pearl River, NY, who gave his name as Peter said, “Anyone can march in the parade, but the only thing is it’s not a parade for sexual orientation. It’s an ethnic, religious parade. There’s a gay parade in the summer.”

Peter explained that he firmly opposes including LGBT organizations in the march even though AOH counts gay men among its ranks. “We even have gay members here, but they don’t march. The one particular fellow who is openly gay, he just doesn’t want to march.”

Nevertheless, Peter granted, “Nothing stays the same forever.”

The final push to allow LGBT groups to march may not come from city officials, but from Ireland, where officials like Labour Party minister Joan Burton refused invitations to march in New York because of the gay ban.

Follow Mary Emily O'Hara on Twitter: @maryemilyohara

Photo via Flickr