Ever-More Inclusive Parade in Queens

St. Pat’s For All becomes a must-visit event for New York City politicians

A week of brutal winter winds eased this Sunday, March 5, letting mild weather shine on the crowds gathered in Sunnyside, Queens for the seventh annual St. Pats for All Parade. This annual, all-inclusive parade was originally founded as a response to the anti-gay policy of the Ancient Order of Hibernians’ annual parade down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, but has evolved into a valued holiday tradition for Queens residents.

“As far as we’re concerned, we’re here to stay,” parade organizer Brendan Fay told Gay City News. “I would love to see the spirit of this parade spread to other parades throughout the city. We’ve learned that being an inclusive parade is more than simply being inclusive of LGBT people, it really means rethinking how we relate to each other. The extraordinary thing about this parade is the solidarity, the friendships that have built up over the seven years. When we need each other to help in our causes for more justice, for ending discrimination, for equality, we can reach out to all these communities we’ve been working with.”

This coalition-building was evident in the many varied groups that participated. From the Lesbian and Gay Big Apple Corps to the Irish dance troupe from P.S. 59 in the Bronx, from Dignity Brooklyn to the Mexican Comite Civico, every part of the community was represented. And although some politicians viewed this parade warily in its early years, this weekend they came out in droves.

Among those politicians in attendance were Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, Congressman Joseph Crowley, Comptroller William C. Thompson, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, State Senator Thomas Duane of Chelsea, Councilmembers Helen Sears of Jackson Heights and Eric Gioia of Sunnyside, and Queens out gay Democratic District Leader Daniel Dromm.

Clearly, the parade is now viewed as part of the fabric of life in Queens.

“Fourteen years ago, some of them wouldn’t even have their picture taken with us,” said Dromm. “To walk down the streets of Sunnyside with an openly gay City Council speaker is just tremendous, and to have the support of basically almost every single politician in Queens is just incredible.”

Although his participation has in some past years been low-key, Bloomberg spoke at the event this year.

“This is the fifth year in a row I’ve been here, and I’ll come down for the next three. It’s a nice parade and I do think it symbolizes what is great about New York City,” the mayor told the crowd.

With a rather oblique nod to the controversial history of contention between this parade and the older one organized by the Hibernians, Bloomberg said, “It is certainly a month of parades, and it’s great this year that I will be able to share the podium at so many of those with a true descendant of the Green Isle, the new speaker of the City Council. Government is a very competitive thing, but I will cede that she is the official Irish woman of New York City.”

“We are very proud today to welcome Christine Quinn as speaker of the City Council,” echoed Fay. “We are proud that she has never concealed, she has never been closeted, she’s always been open, lesbian, and Irish. I hope it will make people think, ‘So where are the other parades, the Fifth Avenue parade? It’s time to put this behind us.’”

Quinn noted it was exciting to be attending this year as the first Irish, woman, and out LGBT speaker of the City Council, telling Gay City News, “This is a must-attend on my calendar; I never miss it. This parade sends a message we all know about New York—that it is an inclusive, supportive city, a city where everybody can fully be a member of the Irish-American community… That the sky is not falling, contrary to the prediction that the world would end if days like this happened.”

As someone who has in the past been arrested for protesting non-inclusive parades, Quinn said, “Struggles for civil rights, struggles for inclusion are long and hard, and you don’t win every battle along the way. But I have no doubt in my mind that days like today, coupled with everyone’s ongoing commitment to inclusion, will lead to a day where we ultimately win the war and are full participants in the St. Patrick’s’ Day Parade on Fifth Avenue. I have no doubt in my mind. People need to keep the faith and not grow weary along the way.”

Others also spoke about the parade’s importance in fostering a sense of community strength.

“I’m a Queens native, and I think I represent along with the people marching here the diversity of Queens and how we celebrate each other’s holidays,” said Duane, who added that he looked forward to marching with a famed family of Irish-American writers honored by the parade—the McCourt brothers: Frank, Malachy, Michael, and Alfie. “And I’m also Irish, so to be having this parade in my hometown is just wonderful.” Thompson, the comptroller, who walked with Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, said, “It is a celebration of Irish culture and heritage, but in an inclusive fashion. People are here from across the city… this parade continues to grow, and I’m happy to be marching again.”

Several participants hoped this parade would ultimately help the cause of unity.

“I think just the fact that we’re here and we exist… is a step in the right direction. One day there won’t be a need for two parades,” said Barbara Anne Heffernan Mohr, a parade board member since its inception.

“Visibility is so important,” said Dromm. “Once people get to know who we are, they are less threatened by us. So I do think this will lead to the parade in Manhattan changing its policy. It’s silly, it’s just a few people in the Hibernians who want to maintain the status quo and not change, but even that’s changing. People are saying we should be in that parade, and Hibernians are speaking out and saying we should be involved in that parade.”

According to Fay, “We will actually be sitting down and asking ourselves over the next couple of days where we are with these other parades. It is sad that there is still so much inequality and discrimination, so with all the dancing and colors and fun of today’s parade, we’re all very conscious how far we still have yet to go, whether it’s welcoming in a parade, or marriage.”

Sidestepping his own challenge to last year’s victory for same-sex marriage in a Manhattan trial level court, later overturned in an intermediate appeals court, Bloomberg told the crowd, “Our city is great because of its diversity and I think we have to continue to make sure that every person here can work together and live together and have all of the great benefits and joys that this city provides. Regardless of their race or their creed, their sexual orientation, we all should have the same rights.”

“Each and every year we get more and more people from the community coming out,” said David Weprin of Queens who chairs the Finance Committee of the City Council. “I remember in one of the early years it was very controversial—not everyone accepted it, there were a lot more protestors on the sidelines. But it’s gotten to the stage where this has become established…and I think it is terrific.”

Only a handful of protestors lined the parade route this year, and their message did not seem particularly coherent. One protestor held aloft a poster that read, “Bush for Queens,” leading to comic misinterpretation as to whether he was anti-gay, or pro-transgender rights.

Marchers all seemed to agree that the parade was an opportunity to come together in the name of unity and celebration.

“It’s a fun parade—it’s meant to be fun—and we try and make it so that it’s not people trying to put negative comments out there,” said Tom Moulton, Fay’s husband. “Even if you’re protesting against the war, do something positive with it instead of glum faces and screaming. Scream for joy, rather than out of anger. The whole point is to be celebratory about life and being Irish, and the effects of Ireland throughout the entire world.”

The Rude Mechanical Orchestra, which member Laura Vuksinich described as “political marching band… but also an affinity group,” embodied this ideal perfectly. Bringing up the parade’s rear, this ragtag ensemble protested the war in Iraq through their brass band interpretations of pop songs, dancing and trumpeting through the streets.

The parade was prefaced by a reception on Friday in Manhattan at the Irish Arts Center, which Mohr said was “magnificent,” adding that WBAI Radio had broadcast the event. And, after walking the 20 blocks from Sunnyside to Woodside, parade participants enjoyed a post-celebratory pint at the Irish pub Saints and Sinners.

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