Bigotry on Parade, Again

Compared to those held in the 1990s, the St. Patrick's Day Parade on Fifth Avenue March 17 was not nearly as fraught with confrontation between excluded Irish LGBT marchers and the anti-gay organizers from the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH). This year an intrepid band led by the group Irish Queers protested the parade, and their presence brought out the worst in some among the tri-state's “finest” and “bravest” – uniformed police and fire department personnel from across the region.

Among the picketers at 57th Street, who never seemed to number more than 35 but organizers said consisted of at least 75 who came and went over several hours, was Fabian McGrath, chair of the LGBT section of Ireland's Labour Party.

Annual Fifth Avenue St. Patrick's Day proudly excludes gay marchers

“We can walk down the street [as a gay contingent] in Dublin or Cork, but can't do it here,” he said. “If this were black people being banned, there'd be a riot.”

Andres Mellinas, 20, of Barcelona, took time out from a vacation in New York with his parents who he said are members of a parents of gays group there.

“People who are gay should be able to participate,” Mellinas said.

In Spain, same-sex couples enjoy full marriage equality.

The St. Patrick's Day Parade is probably the most regimented, militaristic, and homogeneous of all city parades, despite slogans like “Everyone is Irish today” as well as a few faces of color. The first couple of hours consisted of virtually nothing but uniformed cops and firefighters.

Emmaia Gelman of Irish Queers said that the presence of all these uniformed officers constituted the official participation of the city, despite the insistence of the police and fire departments that the officers are off-duty. She said her group intends to “press” the city on the issue.

“I think [the city] should stop them from marching in uniform,” said protester Mary Elizabeth Bartholomew of the Brehon Law Society, an organization of Irish attorneys.

The protest site was marked by tension between demonstrators, who at times chanted, “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, NYPD go away,” and uniformed police and firemen marching, who by and large conveyed either condescension or outright hostility.

One fireman from New Jersey shouted “fag” at the protesters, then scurried into the middle of his contingent when pursued by this reporter for his name.

A member of the AOH contingent in the parade was more frank in his hostility.

“You can march,” he said, “in body bags.”

“It's profoundly disturbing that people find it amusing that we're here protesting bigotry,” said picketer Benjamin, 29, of Brooklyn. He described most of the uniformed reaction as “ridicule” and said it was “disempowering.”

Gelman said, “There are not many other places where people feel quite as free to direct homophobic attacks.”

In 1991, the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization (ILGO), a now defunct group of LGBT Irish immigrants, applied to march in the parade and was rejected. To accommodate the group's members, the relatively liberal Manhattan Division 7 of the AOH allowed ILGO to march in its contingent along with Mayor David Dinkins. Even without a banner identifying them as gay, the group was heaped with verbal abuse and projectiles aimed at the mayor, who later wrote in a New York Times op-ed that it reminded him of his experience in civil rights marches of the early 1960s in the Deep South.

After that fiasco, ILGO was totally excluded and also denied a permit for a separate march earlier in the day. But demonstrations by gay protesters attracted thousands and were the scene of hundreds of arrests, including those of politicians such as Tom Duane, now a state senator, and Christine Quinn, the speaker of the City Council. Duane and Quinn no longer join the protest, but continue to boycott the parade along with most progressive politicians, though US Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer have participated, as has Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

This year, most of New York's political establishment was in Albany for the swearing-in of Governor David Paterson, and the only prominent figures spotted were former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who long ago abandoned his practice of marching in the LGBT Pride March, retired Council Speaker Peter Vallone and his namesake son, who is a member of the Council, and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who asserted in a television interview that the parade is a celebration of “diversity.”

Irish Queers met with Quinn last Friday and said they won her commitment to continue to boycott until the ban on Irish gay groups is lifted. They want her to join their protest and encourage her political allies, including the state's two Democratic US senators, to boycott, as well as launch a Council inquiry into the city's official entanglement with the parade. The group reported no specific progress on those issues, but John Francis Mulligan of Irish Queers called it “an open dialogue” and said he was happy that discussion would be ongoing.

Brendan Fay, a lead organizer of the inclusive St. Pat's For All Parade in Queens, noted that the Tablet, the official newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, urged its readers not to participate in the annual Sunnyside-Woodside celebration of diversity because of the openly LGBT contingents.

“We approached Catholic schools and they said they were told not to participate by the leadership of the diocese,” Fay said of the March 2 event.

Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, outside St. Patrick's Cathedral, was asked if he forbade Catholics to march in the Queens parade. “No, we don't forbid,” he said.

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