Members of Irish Queers and their allies spoke to the press this past March 17. | DONNA ACETO
BY PAUL SCHINDLER | In a surprising development that apparently caught activists and elected officials off guard, the organizers of the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade on Fifth Avenue announced that a gay-identified group will be allowed to participate next March 17.
Out@NBCUniversal, an LGBT employee group at the media company, has been invited to march under its banner, according to the September 3 statement from New York City Saint Patrick’s Day Parade Inc. The group’s announcement noted that the company’s New York broadcast affiliate, WNBC, has been a longtime partner in televising the parade.
Response to the announcement from LGBT community groups varied — with all acknowledging the progress the NBC group’s participation represents, but a number raising concerns that the inclusiveness applies to only one group in the first year.
Activists, advocacy groups say one LGBT contingent is not enough
“We welcome this cracking of the veneer of hate, but so far Irish LGBT groups are still not able to march in our community’s parades,” the activist group Irish Queers said in a statement. “The fight continues.”
IQ has been a leader in pressing for an end to the parade’s exclusionary policy. This past March, the group unsuccessfully lobbied Mayor Bill de Blasio to go beyond his boycott of the event and bar city personnel, like police and firefighters, from participating in their uniforms.
Responding to the parade organizers’ pledge to welcome other LGBT groups to the 2016 event, IQ stated, “The parade must be open to Irish LGBT groups, not ‘in subsequent years’ but now. (We remember too well how parade organizers used fake waiting lists to bury our applications before.)
The Empire State Pride Agenda echoed IQ’s concerns and noted the history of activism aimed at changing the discriminatory policy.
“While this development is long overdue, inviting one group to march at the exclusion of all others and continuing to refer to our vibrant community as ‘gay’ when it is in fact lesbian, gay, bisexual ,and transgender, is a far stretch from the full inclusion we deserve,” ESPA’s executive director Nathan Schaefer said in a written statement.
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation took the occasion to note that after “outreach” to parade sponsors, asking them to reconsider their participation, both Heineken and Guinness this year withdrew their longtime roles in the parade. Even as it suggested its hand in forging the organizers’ new stance, GLAAD qualified its enthusiasm for the announcement.
“As an Irish-Catholic American, I look forward to a fully inclusive St. Patrick’s Day Parade that I can share with my wife and children, just as my own parents shared with me,” the group’s president, Sarah Kate Ellis, said in a written statement. “Until then, parade organizers must be held accountable to ending this ban once and for all.”
GLAAD also highlighted a message it received from Irish Queers making clear that “our struggle” for a fully inclusive parade is not over.
The Washington-based Human Rights Campaign offered the most unambiguous praise for the organizers’ move, with the director of its religion and faith program, Sharon Groves, saying, “We are pleased that the changes proposed by the parade committee will finally make it possible for LGBT Americans — including Irish-Catholic LGBT Americans — to officially march under their own banners.”
NBCUniversal issued a statement welcoming the organizers’ invitation for its LGBT group to march, but offered no insight into the specific role — as the parade’s broadcaster — it played in the change of policy. Frank Comerford, the chief revenue officer for the NBC stations group, is a part of the parade committee.
De Blasio, who was the first mayor since David Dinkins to boycott the parade but also faced criticism from some activists for not blocking uniformed city employees from marching, showed no signs on September 3 that he expected the change in policy. Asked how the inclusion of a single LGBT group would affect his decision on whether to march next year, the mayor said, “I’ve got to be honest with you — we heard this just a few hours ago — I want to hear directly from the parade organizers before I assume what their position is. I want to talk to community members. But I know it represents progress. I know this is a good day for New York City, and it’s a step forward for inclusion. But I need to know more before I can decide what I’m going to do in March.”
One striking detail about the NBC LGBT group marching next year is that the parade’s grand marshal will be Cardinal Timothy Dolan. In a statement from the Archdiocese, the cardinal expressed his continued “confidence and support” for the parade, but insisted that neither he nor his predecessors “have ever determined who would or would not march in this parade… but have always appreciated the cooperation of parade organizers in keeping the parade close to its Catholic heritage.”
Former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who as the city’s leading out LGBT elected official had tried to broker an end to the parade’s ban, noted that Dolan had in recent years sounded a friendlier tone on the question of participation in the event. “I know that there are thousands and thousands of gay people marching in this parade,” he said. “And I’m glad they are.”
While acknowledging Dolan’s religious resistance to LGBT rights advances, Quinn said about his serving as grand marshal in 2015, “I don’t think Dolan wanted to participate in an event marred by controversy… It’s a matter of the cardinal being somebody who wants to be of New York.
The former speaker said she appreciates the reservations activists have about the organizers’ announcement.
“I understand why people would be concerned and would be mistrustful,” she told Gay City News. “It didn’t happen with everyone sitting around the table. We don’t know who said what to who and when.”
There is no turning back, though, for the organizers, she said.
“Then they’re not just bigots, they’re deceitful lying bigots.”
In Quinn’s view, “All of the activists, allies, and corporate leaders who have boycotted over the past 25 years should be proud of ourselves.”