Days after a gay-inclusive St. Patrick’s Day parade in Queens attended by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a host of elected officials, including Mayor Jason West of New Paltz, the upstate town where he has conducted same-sex marriages, a corporate sponsor of the parade is alleging it is the victim of retaliation.
Roseann Sessa of the Boru Vodka Company, an Irish liquor manufacturer and distributor, claims that because her company donated $2,400 to the Queens St. Patrick’s Day for All parade, an official with the committee in charge of the larger March 17 Fifth Avenue parade rescinded an agreement Boru had to distribute beverages during festivities after the Manhattan event.
Sessa alleges that the sudden cold shoulder is a result of Manhattan parade officials’ dislike of a gay-inclusive St. Patrick’s Day event.
For years, controversy has swirled around the refusal of Manhattan parade officials to allow participants to march in the Fifth Avenue parade with a banner identifying them as gays and lesbians. The matter has gone before a state court that ruled that parade officials, based on the Roman Catholic origins of the parade, have a right to exclude openly gay and lesbian marchers.
Five years ago, Brendan Fay, an Irish gay activist who lives in Queens, organized the alternative parade as an antidote, so to speak, to the bitter resentments that had resulted from years of conflict over the oldest parade in the United States, one that is a source of enormous ethnic pride for people of Irish descent. Last year, Fay married his partner, Dr. Thomas Moulton, a pediatric oncologist, in a religious ceremony attended by hundreds from across the city.
“We do lots of sponsorships, from cystic fibrosis to cancer to other things,” said Essa, who said that the Boru label, named after a hero in ancient Irish history, Brian Boru, was attempting to make inroads with scant advertising dollars in the competitive New York liquor market.
“In terms of allowing gays to march, we have no stance,” added Sessa. “We are non-sectarian—a marketing company. All we had was a Boru banner in the parade.”
“I know nothing about their parade and I don’t know Brendan Fay and don’t want to know him,” said Jim Barker, the executive secretary director of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Celebration Committee, the group that runs the Fifth Avenue parade.
Barker denied retaliating against Boru Vodka for donating to the Queens parade. Barker acknowledged calling Sessa this week and telling her that a Boru advertisement scheduled for placement on the back page of the official program for the Manhattan parade was being canceled. Sessa was also informed that Boru Vodka would not be distributed at any of the official parade functions, including a gala at the Waldorf-Astoria.
Barker denied that killing the Boru ad or banning was retaliation for the company supporting the Queens parade. He said his group had decided to print the parade’s order of march on the back of the program and that hotel management, not his group, controls what liquor is served at the Waldorf.
“We had considered running the Boru ad and then decided against it,” said Barker, a Queens businessman whose service running the parade since 1994 has been on a voluntary basis. “Considering it and doing it are two different things,” he added.
As for objecting to Boru’s attempts to assist a queer community-based group, Barker said, “There is no prejudice here.”
“I was stupefied,” said Sessa about her reaction to the Barker phone call informing her that Boru was being cut out of the March 17 festivities. “The Irish community has come to our support though.”
“The parade follows a tradition that is 243 years old,” said Barker. “We adhere to the teachings of St. Patrick and the Roman Catholic Church and anyone not in line with that is in violation of the parade’s constitution.”
Fay said that the Boru money helped to pay for a public school marching band and a large marching puppet from Ireland that delights children.
“Even the Ancient Order of Hibernians have spoken out against this vindictiveness,” said Fay, referring to Irish cultural organization with influential roots. “This is a new low on the part of detractors of the inclusive parade.”
Barker said his decision to exclude the vodka company will stand. “They are trying to shove their vodka down our throats and we are not going to take it. And it’s not going to change.”