The 253-year old St. Patrick’s Day Parade has invited an Irish LGBT group, the Lavender & Green Alliance, to march for the first time, a move that will end a 25-year boycott of the parade that began in 1991 when the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, a group made up largely of Irish LGBT immigrants, applied to march and was denied.
In response to ILGO’s application, the parade declared itself a Catholic procession and said gay groups were anathema, sparking massive protests by ILGO in the early years, and the determined efforts by Irish Queers, a successor activist group, to maintain the boycott since then. As a result, most progressive politicians in New York –– including Mayors David Dinkins and Bill de Blasio –– have stayed away from the parade for the past quarter century.
The parade’s board of directors changed this past year, and is now led by chair John Lahey, president of Quinnipiac University, who got a non-Irish LGBT group into the parade last year, Out@NBC, the LGBT employee group at the television network. WNBC, the affiliate the network owns in New York, telecasts the parade and is its chief source of revenue. The addition of that group to the parade did not end the protest from Irish Queers and their allies, including de Blasio, who insisted that only an invitation to an Irish LGBT group could bring the controversy to a conclusion.
In a statement citing the 10oth anniversary of the Easter Uprising for Irish Independence next year, Lahey said the 2016 parade “is a special opportunity for renewed commitment to Irish values and traditions and the Irish role in the 21st century. We are working with the government of Ireland on this anniversary year to teach our young people the lessons of sacrifice and heroism, of love and tolerance, embodied in the Irish spirit.”
Brendan Fay, founder and chair of the Lavender & Green Alliance/ Muintir Aerach na hÉireann and an ILGO leader two decades ago, said in the release that the invitation “sends a positive message across the Irish Cultural landscape. As LGBT Irish Americans we thank John Lahey and the members of the Board for this historic decision which reflects the feelings of most Irish and Irish Americans. With the decision, we cross a historic threshold and our members will proudly march up Fifth Avenue with our banner.”
Fay has been one of the main organizers of the St. Pat’s for All Parade in Sunnyside, Queens that welcomed all comers, including LGBT groups, since 2000, and he said he hopes all Irish LGBT people and their allies feel welcome to join the Lavender & Green contingent on Fifth Avenue next year.
In a subsequent written statement issued on his own, Fay said, “It will be a great day for the Irish diaspora and for all New Yorkers as we will honor the centenary of 1916 Rising together. The words from the 1916 proclamation, ‘cherishing all the children of the nation equally,’ will be real and meaningful.”
In a separate statement, Irish Queers said, “We are happy and relieved to announce that after 25 years of struggle, we have won!” The group called it “a victory for grassroots organizing, civil disobedience, and street protests of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization and its successor, Irish Queers.”
The IQ statement said, “The parade issue has never just been about LGBTQ people. Irish people’s struggles are part of our identity: challenges to religious bigotry, demands for women’s rights, Irish republicanism, and struggles against racism in New York and Ireland are irreducible parts of the Irish experiences.”
The statement said the protests began “as part of Irish queer people’s work to stem the homophobia-fueled tide of AIDS deaths, to push back on the power of the church in Ireland, and to end the pretense that Irish queers are not a central part of Irish culture and politics.”
Anne Maguire, one of the founders and stalwarts of ILGO who wrote a history of the controversy, “Rock the Sham! The Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization’s Battle to March in New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade,” said, “The first 10 years were hard but my hat's off to Irish Queers who never let us forget. It took far too long but it's over, at last.”
Irish American politicians, including then-City Councilmember Tom Duane and Christine Quinn, his chief lieutenant at the time who went on to become speaker of the Council, were among the hundreds arrested in the early years of protest against the parade. In 1991, Dinkins tried to broker a compromise whereby ILGO marched with him within Division 7 of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, but he and the group were met with derision and beer bottles, leading the mayor to compare it to marching for civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1960s. From that point forward, ILGO was excluded and Dinkins boycotted, though Republican Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg did not respect the boycott.
Irish Queers paid tribute to original members of ILGO “who were also part of ACT UP, the Lesbian Avengers, and other important queer activist forces — who laid the groundwork for this victory. We look forward to marching up Fifth Avenue with our community.”
Irish Central reported that the parade organizers’ meeting at which Lavender & Green won approval to march was “crashed” by four members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians aligned with the event’s virulently anti-gay former chair, John Dunleavy, who “demanded” his reinstatement as “the parade's chief decision-maker.” Lahey then released an audit that showed that Dunleavy had misused $24,000 in parade funds for personal use, including vacation trips and medical bills. The story says that Dunleavy is threatening to sue over his removal as chair of the board, will stand in November for another term as chair of the parade committee and, failing all that, will form a new committee to take back control of the parade.
The breakthrough on LGBT inclusion comes after this year’s referendum in Ireland where more than 62 percent of voters opted to open marriage to same-sex couples.