BY WINNIE McCROY | Residents of the Queens neighborhoods of Sunnyside and Woodside are way beyond having to choose between celebrating their Irish heritage or embracing their city's diversity. For the better part of a decade, the St. Pat's for All inclusive parade has become firmly established as one of the city's best examples of how New York's diverse communities can celebrate Irish history in a unified and festive fashion.
“What's very moving is the community activism and hope and commitment that made this inclusive parade possible… and now it's another traditional parade in this city,” said parade co-chair Brendan Fay.
“It's the most progressive parade in New York; we welcome everybody,” added parade co-chair Kathleen Walsh D'Arcy.
An Inclusive St. Patrick's Tradition Grows Stronger in Sunnyside.
The annual event stands in stark contrast to the centuries-old March 17 walk down Fifth Avenue, organized by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which bars participation by openly LGBT groups. Dating back to the mayoralty of David Dinkins, Fay was a leader of the to-date unsuccessful effort to integrate that parade. In recent years, Fay refocused his energies on building an inclusive tradition in his home borough.
Sunny skies greeted the many politicians, marchers, and viewers who lined up along Skillman Avenue on March 2 for what remains the only St. Patrick's Day parade in New York City that welcomes gays. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has regularly marched, was absent this year, but other elected officials present included City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, an out lesbian from Chelsea who was one of two grand marshals, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Comptroller William Thompson, Congressman Anthony Weiner, Assembly Members Michael Gianaris, Rory Lancman, Jose Peralta, and Audrey Pfeffer, Councilmembers Jim Gennaro, Eric Gioia, Melinda Katz, and David Weprin, and Democratic district leader Danny Dromm.
“I have known all the sacrifice and commitment Brendan has put in his work on behalf of the Irish community and the LGBT community, so to be honored and recognized in this way is always wonderful, but to be honored and recognized by Brendan at the only truly inclusive parade – one that really stands in tremendously sharp contrast to Fifth Avenue – it's a very exciting day,” Quinn told Gay City News.
The speaker's fellow grand marshal, Pete Hamill, the Brooklyn journalist and author, echoed this sentiment, saying, “It's the greatest Irish parade anywhere, maybe except Cork, and one I wish the people that ran the Fifth Avenue parade would pay greater attention to, and understand the spirit of what it meant to be Irish long before we began arguing over interpretations of things from the 16th century… when being Irish was something to be proud of.”
Although local politicians and activists have always been drawn to this inclusive parade, its acceptance by the diverse Sunnyside and Woodside neighborhoods, which include their fair share of conservative-minded residents, speaks volumes about its success. The anti-gay protestors present in earlier years were conspicuously absent, and crowds lined up along the route, despite the cold winter winds.
George Pabon, a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, sat watching a soccer match while he awaited the arrival of his friends from HOLA, Hombre Latinos de Ambiente.
“I think every parade should include everyone – black, white, straight, or gay,” said Pabon, adding that he no longer attends the St. Patrick's Day parade in Manhattan, given the exclusion of gays. Pabon credits the success of the Queens parade to having “the support of the neighborhood. The community has to work together to make it happen.”
Dorothy Bukantz, who has lived on 47th Street for 12 years, said that many of her neighbors in this tight-knit community lean toward activism of some sort.
“Every year this parade gets better, and more inclusive,” said Bukantz. “It became representative of the amazing diversity of Queens. Parades that only represent one portion aren't anywhere near as exciting as when you're standing on the street and you see something from your culture there.”
Bukantz said she avoided the Fifth Avenue parade both because of the exclusionary policy and the drunken revelers, adding, “They should clean up their act, and include everybody. But we should keep our parade anyway, because it's something different. It's not a gay parade, it's everybody's parade.”
Alice Farrell has lived in the area for nearly seven years, and noted, “More and more people come out every year and embrace it. You see more diverse groups marching, and it's just a fabulous statement to the inclusiveness that they've tried to foster among all the people in the community.”
As a young child tugged at her sweater, Farrell added that as an openly gay woman, she does not support the parade down Fifth Avenue, because they will not allow her to march openly under a banner.
College Point resident Kim Boyd stood at the sidelines with her infant son and mother, Margaret, watching the parade for the first time. Boyd said that they had made the trek across Queens to begin exposing her son to these cultural events, and considered the inclusive nature of the parade important. Although she said she would like to take her son to the Fifth Avenue parade, the raucous crowds made it a less than ideal environment.
Jenny Turpin of nearby Elmhurst said that this would be her Irish husband's first St. Patrick's Day parade since he moved to America eight years ago. Although they appreciated the inclusive aspect of the parade, what compelled them to attend – and kept them from the Fifth Avenue parade – was that the event is geared more toward community, and less toward public intoxication.
Another first-year attendee, Pat Rhodes, traveled across the city from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, after reading about the parade in the newspaper.
“I can't understand why they got flagged from the New York City parade in the first place,” Rhodes said. “I'm from Philadelphia, and our parade is very different; everyone's welcome.”
Still, this corner of Queens has some strides to make toward complete inclusion.
“People throw up barriers still to this day in this neighborhood. [They] are afraid of gay issues, and that's too bad. Even when I'm at the local pub, I'll hear people belittling the parade,” said Patrick Linghenry, a resident of 47th Street and Skillman Avenue. “Some people, they're still afraid. I think we have a way to go before people feel comfortable.”
“Sunnyside Gardens has always been a very diverse community, ethnically, economically, age-wise, and that spawns all kinds of multicultural celebrations and tolerance among different ethnic groups,” countered his neighbor, Marc Crawford Leavitt. “This parade is very welcomed by folks because it's multicultural, and accepts gays. While the Catholic Church has a very strong influence in this neighborhood, it's within the context of the tolerance that this neighborhood carries. For the most part, it's very welcome.”
“This parade has changed a lot of attitudes in the city,” Fay stated. “For years, protestors being arrested was the annual story around the parade. But this parade, which began with the hopes and dreams of people in Queens, has grown. And it's not just about tagging along LGBT contingents… but literally about rethinking what cultural events and parades are in this city. We weren't just a flash in the pan, reacting to something on Fifth Avenue. This parade is a good that has come out of an experience of discrimination.”