St. Patrick's Day: How did it become a flashpoint for gay rights?

St. Patrick's Day parades in two cities have become battlegrounds for gay rights. Now, the mayors in New York and Boston – which have two of the largest parades – have joined the cause.

Michael Dwyer/AP Photo
Alyssa Bowdre (center l.) and Kia Dumas (center r.) march with a rainbow flag in an alternative parade that follows behind the traditional St. Patrick's Day parade in the South Boston neighborhood of Boston Sunday.

Gay Irish-Americans, still feeling the sting of discrimination a decade after Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage, have begun to make headway in their push to turn St. Patrick's Day parades into a national cause.

Mayor Bill De Blasio will be the first New York City mayor since 1993 to boycott the procession in protest of parade organizers’ ban on pro-gay placards. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh sat out this year’s annual parade in South Boston on Sunday for the same reason. The bans have also prompted Samuel Adams Brewery and Guinness to pull sponsorship from the Boston and New York parades, respectively.

The issue has been percolating for two decades. In 1995, the US Supreme Court ruled that the organizers of the Boston parade were within their rights to exclude the Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston, since it was a private event.

But public opinion about homosexuality has changed dramatically since then, and gay marriage is now legal in 17 states and the District of Columbia. That makes a difference, says Kara Coredini, executive director of MassEquality, a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) advocacy group in Boston.

"We’ve had marriage equality for 10 years now in Massachusetts – we’re celebrating that huge anniversary this year. Seven in 10 people oppose discrimination against LGBT people at this point," she adds. "Just because the parade organizers still have the right to do this doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do."

To gay and straight Irish-Americans alike, St. Patrick's Day parades are a point of pride, and gay participants don't want to be compelled to hide who they are.

“There are Irish people who are LGBT there are veterans who are LGBT and they want to be able to participate in a parade that’s celebrating Irish heritage and that’s celebrating the service and sacrifice of our military service members,” Ms. Coredini says.

Organizers in both New York and Boston have said that gay individuals are not prohibited from participating, but they are not permitted to identify themselves as LGBT.

Coredini sees that distinction as “very symbolic of the double standard that LGBT people face in their daily lives about being able to live their lives openly and honestly. In the case of the parade, the police, the firefighters, Irish groups, they are able to march down the street, behind their standards – their flag – and behind a banner that identifies what group they are.”

Boston parade organizer John “Wacko” Hurley told the Boston Herald that the barring gays from the parade isn’t “a gay issue,” and reiterated the Supreme Court decision allowing the Allied War Veterans Council of South Boston “to ban anybody that we don’t want in there. It might have been Irish. It might have been blondes that talk too much.”

He added later that LGBT groups have their own parade in June. They may want to march in this one too, but “They ain’t,” he said, “Because I said so.”

Across the pond, many in Ireland are left wondering why parade organizers in the US would object to pro-gay signs.

“I find it extraordinary that Irish Americans can be so far behind the actual inhabitants of the island of Ireland," Irish Sen. David Norris told the Monitor in an e-mail. "Ten years ago the gay float won first prize in our national St. Patrick's Day Parade.”

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