Irish, Queer and Still There

The annual gay protest at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade focuses its ire on Bloomberg

Each March 17 for more than a decade, members of the queer community have headed out to various spots along Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue to protest the St. Patrick’s Day parade’s exclusion of openly gay and lesbian contingents.

A parade that prides itself on being founded before New York City came into existence, the event has long been the city’s premiere showcase for politicking, military might and Roman Catholic orthodoxy, precisely the forces with which the gay community so often finds itself at odds.

This year, as in years past, a renegade group known as Irish Queers, along with their supporters, gathered on the southeast corner of 58th Street and Fifth Avenue to speak out against their exclusion as an officially recognized marching contingent by the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), the parade’s official organizers.

The group focused particular attention on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to march, as he has done throughout his term in office, in what Irish Queers call a homophobic event.

“Our goal is to remind people of the boycott, to not participate in a parade of hate that excludes lesbians and gay men for a struggle that’s been continuing for 15 years,” said John Francis Mulligan, a spokesman for Irish Queers.

The group’s loose structure lies in its genesis as the direct-action arm of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization (ILGO), a once larger body that included many gay and lesbian Irish immigrants outraged that the New York parade—unlike the same events in their native Dublin, Galway and other Irish cities—prevented their inclusion.

For years beginning in the 1980s, ILGO staged actions meant to disrupt the parade, by either attempting to cut into the line of march or engaging in forms of civil disobedience. The police department typically responded with dispatch, making quick arrests and sweeping protesters away from Fifth Avenue. In more recent years, under the guise of the Irish Queers, carefully planned acts of civil disobedience meant to gain headlines and draw attention to the cause, have given way to peaceful protest.

“For the last two years our mission has been to demonstrate that the parade is not Irish in any way,” said Emmaia Gelman, an organizer with Irish Queers. “Militarism is not Irish, big business which has a huge role in the parade isn’t Irish and bigotry isn’t Irish. What’s Irish is the community, which is us.”

The group rallied their supporters on Wednesday, March 16, with a protest in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral when roughly 50 protestors held signs indicating their displeasure with the Hibernians as celebrants from the 5:30 p.m. Mass departed from the cathedral.

On St. Patrick’s Day, several gay protesters expressed dismay with Bloomberg’s annual decision to march in the parade including this year when he marched with his predecessor Rudolph Giuliani. Others, including Gelman, lauded other elected officials, including many Democrats, who boycotted the parade in solidarity with the gay community.

Among the protesters was Dorothy Zellner, who once did educational outreach for the Center for Constitutional Rights, the organization that represented ILGO in an unsuccessful lawsuit filed against Giuliani in 1998.

“I’m a native New Yorker, and this parade was never a religious parade,” said Zellner. “In fact, the Jewish mayor of Dublin led the parade one year, and there was a contingent called the Yiddish Sons of Erin. Somehow or other in the past several years this has become a religious parade, as opposed to the Queens parade, which is not a religious parade.”

Zellner referred to what has become known as the city’s only gay-inclusive St. Patrick’s Day parade, held in Astoria for the past six years by Queens gays, and that is attended by Bloomberg and many other elected officials, including Sen. Hilary Rodham Clinton during her 2000 campaign for the Senate. The parade’s founder, Brendan Fay, is a former ILGO member. Clinton broke with other leading Democrats that year by also marching in the Fifth Avenue event.

Zellner called Bloomberg’s participation in both the inclusive Queens parade and the AOH Manhattan parade, “completely hypocritical.”

For his part, Bloomberg avoided the group on March 17, moving to the west side of Fifth Avenue as he approached their corner.

Later on, a mayoral press spokesman responded to an e-mail query.

“He obviously prefers that everyone be able to march in the Manhattan St. Patrick’s Day parade under their own banner,” wrote Jordan Barowitz. “Besides the Manhattan St. Patrick’s Day Parade and the inclusive St. Patrick’s Day parade, the mayor marches in St. Patrick’s Day parades in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island and another in Queens. Each parade is important and each is unique.”

Both the March 16 and 17 protests included the participation of gay youth from Generation Q, a Queens group. On Thursday one young lesbian, Simone McBride, said, “I’m just learning about the discrimination and bigotry. I didn’t know that gays weren’t allowed to march in this parade, and it really got me upset. And I wanted to show support for all of us queers and show that we should be shown, we’re here, not going away, so we should be included.”

Even ACT UP joined the protest, tying the battle against AIDS to gay rights in general. Carlitos, a handsome African-America man who refused to give his last name, said, “Enough with the bigotry, enough with the double-standards, enough of the complacency. If it doesn’t affect you directly, it doesn’t exist…. The same thing goes with AIDS—it affects everybody, whether indirectly or directly; it has a lot to do with budgeting, money, awareness. Complacency kills.”

The parade passed, and protestors waved black flags, a traditional Irish symbol of protest, and chanted slogans including, “We’re Irish, we’re queer, we’ll be here every year,” and “Queers march in Dublin, queers march in Cork, so why can’t queers march in New York?”

The crowd grew to about 30 protestors, and plans to stage a mobile protest through the crowd were aborted. According to Gelman, the police department prevented some people from moving into the corner of the protest once it became clear that they were supporters of Irish Queers.

In a hopeful sign of tolerance and respect, the Irish Queers attended a concert at the Knitting Factory at the invitation of the popular Irish rock band Black 47, whose name refers to 1847, the worst year of a famine that would claim the lives of over a million Irish. The group’s members were also the guests of honor at a party at the Girls Room, a Lower East Side nightclub.

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