Marching Toward Equality

Throughout the course of the last decade, a small St. Patrick's Day parade in a New York borough has made a lasting mark on the world. The all-inclusive St. Pat's For All Parade, held on March 1 in Sunnyside, Queens, has evolved from an “alternative” holiday parade, organized by gay activist Brendan Fay, to a remarkable example of a community embracing diversity.

“When we began this parade we couldn't have imagined the friendships and community spirit that sustained and helped the parade grow beyond the streets of Queens to include annual concerts at the Irish Arts Center and local schools,” said Fay. “People get it. It's still the parade that has the aspect to it that 'We welcome you,' that 'We're inclusive.'”

This year's grand marshals, Terry George, a director (“The Boxer”) and screenwriter (“Hotel Rwanda”), and songwriter and folksinger Susan McKeown – both of them Irish-born – led the parade. As in years previous, community organizations, dancers, musicians, and puppeteers marched under their own banners, celebrating Queens' cultural diversity. An NAACP group carried the banner of Frederick Douglass, recalling his visit to Ireland during the famine. The Mexican community honored San Patricios and how Irish immigrants defended them in the US-Mexican War of 1846-1848. Ecuadoreans celebrated the founder of their navy, Irishman Thomas Charles Wright. Native people from the Choctaw and Shinnecock tribes remembered how their outreach in 1847 helped save starving Irish people during the great famine.

A decade later, St. Pat's For All is Sunnyside tradition.

Even the African-American and Latino children from the Irish dance group the Keltic Dreams of P.S. 59 in the Bronx witnessed how, in stark contrast to Ancient Order of Hibernians' parade on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, which bars participants from identifying themselves as LGBT, this event invites all to show their connection with Irish culture and heritage.

This year, parade attendance was higher than ever, with the route lined with spectators despite brisk temperatures and morning flurries. A parade that originally drew anti-gay protesters and only a small turnout of curious community members gathered along Skillman Avenue has undeniably become a cherished neighborhood tradition.

“We come together as diverse communities of New Yorkers to celebrate Irish heritage and culture,” said Fay. “Exclusion in 2009 – whether from a community parade, a family table, or an institution such as marriage – is wrong and unfair.”

If politicians represent a fair barometer of popular attitudes, the St. Pat's For All's philosophy seems to have gained ascendancy in Sunnyside.

“Every year, more and more elected officials realize that this is a people's parade,” said co-organizer Kathleen Walsh D'Arcy.

City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, an out lesbian from Chelsea, marches in Queens every year and boycotts the Hibernians' parade. She was joined in Sunnyside by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Senator Charles Schumer, Comptroller William Thompson, Congressmen Anthony Weiner and Joseph Crowley, State Senator Thomas K. Duane, also openly gay and from Chelsea, Assemblymembers Rory Lancman and José Peralta, and Councilmembers Tony Avela, Elizabeth Crowley, Bill DiBlasio, James Gennaro, Eric Gioia, John Liu, and David Yassky.

“What this parade says today is that all members of the Irish community in New York City are very welcome to be a part… and to be out and proud about who they are,” said Quinn. “Anybody who thinks that the Irish community doesn't want to embrace its LGBT members just need look at this parade and how much it has grown every year, and how much more diverse and strong it gets every year.”

“You know, all parades should be open to everyone. Let's get serious,” said Bloomberg, who, like Schumer, nonetheless marches in the exclusionary Hibernian event as well.

Community groups marching included the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Fire Department's office of recruitment, Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, or SAGE, Irish for Obama, the Niall O'Leary School of Dance, the Lavender & Green Alliance, the All-City School Marching Band, Local 1199, Dignity New York, the Episcopal Society of St. Francis, Catholic Workers, the Metropolitan Community Church, the AIDS Center of Queens, and alumni of Notre Dame and St. John's University.

Fay pledged to keep pressing for the Hibernians to change their tune.

“We have to keep protesting discrimination wherever it occurs, and never settling for second-class citizenship,” said Fay. “I hope someday the spirit of this parade spreads to the Irish parades in the other boroughs, and I will stay with the struggle until, one day, we all will be together on Fifth Avenue.”

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