Despite Mayor’s Firm No, St. Pat’s Activists Persevere

Though Mayor Bill de Blasio quickly refused a request to bar uniformed city employees from marching in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, saying those employees had a right to march, organizers of the effort to win the ban are continuing their work.

“We don’t feel like the conversation is done because we still want and need him to direct the Police and Fire Departments to uphold the Human Rights Law,” said Emmaia Gelman, a member of the group that is organizing the effort.

On February 3, activists published an open letter in Gay City News, which was also a signatory, that was signed by more 200 individuals and groups that asked the city to bar uniformed employees and city employee groups with banners that identify them with the city from the parade.

Arguing city cannot lend endorsement to discriminatory event, effort to end uniformed participation continues

The parade, which takes place in Manhattan every March 17, has barred openly LGBT marchers and groups since 1993. The activists’ legal argument is that associating city employees with what organizers say is little more than an anti-LGBT parade sends a message that the city personnel “do not respect the lives and safety of LGBT people,” the open letter said.

“The essence of this is an employer… has the power to regulate the use of its uniforms,” said William Dobbs, a gay civil rights attorney. “The parade is flat out discriminatory, it’s a flat out anti-gay parade. The response to that is you want to have an anti-gay parade, the city shouldn’t be endorsing an anti-gay parade. The mayor has already gotten the message.”

The mayor said on February 4 that he would not march in the parade, becoming the first mayor to skip the event since David Dinkins. De Blasio has not marched in the parade for years.

Activists say that city employees can march, but not in their uniforms or behind banners that associate them with the city.

“There’s a legal basis for this,” Gelman said at a February 12 meeting held at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center. “They have the right to march as individuals.”

De Blasio clearly wants to avoid the difficult political problem that would result from banning city employees from marching in the parade in uniform.

The organizing efforts have been complicated by the refusal of some out gay elected officials to sign the open letter. That makes it appear that the community is not speaking with one voice.

City Councilmen Daniel Dromm, Jimmy Van Bramer, and Carlos Menchaca have not signed, nor have Deborah Glick and Danny O’Donnell, two members of the State Assembly. It is not clear if all these elected officials have been asked to sign, though Dromm and Van Bramer were. Neither of the Queens councilmen returned calls seeking comment.

Elected officials who support de Blasio’s progressive agenda and feel some loyalty toward a fellow Democrat may be declining to sign in order to give the mayor some political cover.

“It’s weird and frustrating that they haven’t signed on,” Gelman said. “They are both in new positions of power in a world with a new progressive mayor. We know that when people with a history of activism get closer to power, they pull back from making demands.”

The Empire State Pride Agenda, the statewide gay lobbying group, issued a statement praising de Blasio when he said he would not march in the parade and then its executive director, Nathan Schaefer, signed the letter.

An alternative, inclusive parade that was organized in Queens by activist Brendan Fay beginning in 2000 has become the go-to St. Patrick’s Day Parade for politicians who want to march, but not in the Manhattan parade — though during his years in office, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg marched in both. The St. Pat’s For All parade will be held on March 2 this year, beginning in Sunnyside and marching to Woodside.

Activists have had success organizing in Ireland. Some senior officials in the Irish government who will be in New York City on March 17 have said they will not march.

“Even though we have more work to do… the homophobia of the parade is still front and center,” Gelman said of the activists’ progress to date.

The city’s Fire Department and Police Department did not respond to requests for comment. The organizers of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade also did not respond to an email seeking comment.