Even in Opening Up to LGBT Marchers, St. Pat’s Parade Remains Tightly Regulated Affair

Brendan Fay, the leader of the Lavender & Green Alliance, at the March 3 press conference where the group's invitation to participate on March 17 was announced. | GAY CITY NEWS

Brendan Fay, the leader of the Lavender & Green Alliance, at the March 3 press conference where the group's invitation to participate on March 17 was announced. | GAY CITY NEWS

It took 25 years for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Irish to be invited to march behind their own banner in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade that takes Fifth Avenue every March 17, and it is taking more work to organize that contingent.

“Basically, it’s like meetings every night,” said Brendan Fay, who is among the organizers of the Lavender & Green Alliance, the LGBT group that recently negotiated its participation with the committee that produces the parade. “There’s a lot happening.”

In 1990, the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization (ILGO) applied to march in the parade the following March 17 and was waitlisted, though parade organizers eventually barred the group because it was an LGBT organization. The group, that year, instead marched without a banner alongside then-Mayor David Dinkins. The crowd that lined Fifth Avenue in 1991 was angry and hostile toward the mayor and ILGO. The ban put in place that year meant there were annual protests from the LGBT community, and many elected officials stopped marching.

Lavender & Green Alliance “meeting every night” to organize its Fifth Avenue contingent, rather than a protest

Last year, parade organizers admitted OUT@NBCUniversal, an LGBT employee group at NBCUniversal, a Comcast unit. The local NBC affiliate broadcasts the parade. There was a protest last year because the demand has always been that an Irish LGBT group be allowed to march with its own banner.

Following an extended negotiation between parade organizers and the Alliance with the de Blasio administration and the Irish government’s consulate in New York participating, the Alliance was invited to join the parade. But this isn’t just any parade.

The St. Patrick’s Day Parade has a dress code –– “business/ casual” though “dark colored dress jeans” and “comfortable walking shoes” are permitted. “St. Patrick’s Day kitsch,” including “large hats, Mardi Gras beads, make-up” are barred as are “flags, signs, displays, stickers, statements, or T-shirts with commercial or political slogans.”

Contingents generally join the parade close to their appointed time –– the Alliance will step onto Fifth Avenue from West 48th Street at 3:10 p.m., more than four hours after its 11 a.m. start. And everyone who will march behind the Alliance banner must register with the group before the parade.

“I think people will be disappointed by how ordinary we are,” Fay said.

Organizers of the Alliance contingent have reached out to former ILGO members, Irish Queers, the group that organized recent protests, many of the political figures and activists who supported the protests in the past, other “veterans of this movement,” and even Dinkins, who is recovering from a hospital stay and cannot attend.

The family of gay and AIDS activist Robert Rygor, who died in 1994, may attend. Rygor first protested the exclusion of LGBT people from the parade when he stepped onto Fifth Avenue with a banner on March 17, 1978.

“They need to register,” Fay said. “There were many conversations about this. We started with internal lists.” (People wishing to participate can register at lavenderandgreenalliance.org/#!paraderegistration/mhd3q.)

As of March 10, 170 people had registered, with participants coming from Boston, Washington, DC, and even some from Ireland. When people register, they are invited to submit comments and some have recalled participating in earlier protests.

“Some people note that they were arrested many years ago and they are looking forward to being on the avenue,” Fay said.

He noted that there has been some grumbling about where the Alliance contingent was placed in the parade and its late step-off time.

“For some people, the timing, the placement of Lavender & Green Alliance, some people were hoping there would be appreciation of the history and we would be marching earlier in the parade,” Fay said. “But for me, it’s an historic breakthrough.”

One moment that could be particularly fraught is when the contingent passes St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. The tradition is that the cardinal, currently Archbishop Timothy Dolan, stands on the steps and greets marchers as they pass by, with some marchers stepping over to the cardinal for the greeting. The cardinal is typically not on the steps later in the day, though other bishops and priests will likely be there.

“We are simply going to walk past the cathedral,” Fay said. “We’re not expecting anything special at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for us… If there is an occasion for a greeting, of course we will.”

At the March 3 press conference held to announce the deal, Christopher Hyland, who serves on the board of the foundation that raises funds for the parade, said that at a recent event, Dolan, who heads the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, greeted Fay saying, “Any friend of Christopher Hyland’s is a friend of mine.”

The organizers are proceeding carefully, talking with the parade organizers, and fielding media calls from around the globe as they prepare to mark an end to 25 years of exclusion, always with an eye on ensuring there is another invitation to join the parade next year.

“There’s something very profound and moving about not preparing for a protest, but preparing to be included in the parade,” Fay said.