With Fewer Sponsors, Anti-Gay St. Pat’s Parade Protested for 23rd Year

Uniformed New York City police officers in the Fifth Avenue parade. | DONNA ACETO

Uniformed New York City police officers in the Fifth Avenue parade. | DONNA ACETO

By legend, St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. The question in 2014 is whether beer companies pulling their sponsorship can drive the homophobia out of the New York and Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parades.

On the eve of these parades, Sam Adams pulled its sponsorship from the Boston event and Heineken from New York’s. While Guinness resisted pulling out at first, under pressure from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which threatened a dump of the brew outside of the Stonewall Inn, the company, in the end, did boycott. Ford Motor Company maintained its sponsorship of the Fifth Avenue march, so the message was drink but don’t drive!

Among the other sponsors to bail on the Boston parade were the Westin Waterfront, Gillette, and six local radio stations, some of which had floats and promotions in past parades. In New York, WNBC continued to broadcast the parade and sponsor it, making no mention of the controversy in its four-hour coverage.

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton blasted for marching, most politicians boycott

The fight for the inclusion of LGBT Irish groups got a boost this year from new mayors in New York, Bill de Blasio, and Boston, Marty Walsh, who are boycotting the traditional parades over the exclusion of LGBT Irish groups. Walsh pushed hard for a compromise in Boston that would have let MassEquality, the state’s LGBT rights lobby, march, but the group was not allowed to use the word gay or identify itself as such so it declined and so did Walsh.

De Blasio resisted a coalition call –– including from this newspaper –– to go further and ban city personnel from marching in uniform in what he himself has long skipped for being a discriminatory event. He said they have “a right” to march, when in fact any wearing of the uniform when off duty requires departmental approval.

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and his wife, Rikki Klieman, marching on March 17. | DONNA ACETO

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and his wife, Rikki Klieman, marching on March 17. | DONNA ACETO

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton marched on Monday, earlier brushing off charges that his actions were anti-gay by citing his lesbian sister and pointing to a video he and his wife made in favor of marriage equality.

The annual LGBT protest at Fifth Avenue and 56th Street swelled this year and attracted much more media attention. At a press conference by protesters, Emmaia Gelman of Irish Queers said, “It’s tragic that beer companies have a stronger moral compass than the NYPD.”

She added, “We may have a new mayor who’s interested in reform, but his police commissioner is bringing ugly back.” Irish Queers, she said, is looking at bringing a lawsuit under the City Human Rights Law unless police, fire, and other services –– which make up a significant percentage of the participants –– are stopped from marching in uniform.”

Veteran gay activist Allen Roskoff, president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, said, “I’ve been sober for 29 years, but I want a Guinness beer this morning.”

He catalogued the history of the NYPD’s persecution of gay people from Stonewall to its work against the gay rights bill and to raids on gay bars just in the past several years. By marching, Roskoff said, the police and Bratton “are saying bigotry is OK as long as it is just against the LGBT community.”

Kate Barnhart of New Alternatives for Homeless LGBT Youth said, “Police homophobia is putting LGBT youth at risk every day. When they try to report crimes against them, the police often treat them like criminals instead.”

Ann Northrop of Queer Nation said, “We’ve spent the last year protesting the homophobia of Putin in Russia and the homophobia in Nigeria and Uganda. Here we are having to protest the homophobia of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.” Northrop decried the way police and firefighters can march in uniform with banners but that LGBT Irish cannot, calling it “hypocritical” on the part of the exclusionary parade organizers.

Brendan Fay, one of the leaders of the LGBT-inclusive St. Pat’s for All Parade in Queens, now in its 15th year, said there had once again been efforts this year to integrate the Fifth Avenue parade, “but the organizers refused to sit down in good faith.” Despite what is considered a different tone on gay people coming out of the Vatican, none of it has filtered down to the Irish Catholics who run this parade or to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who is an influential advisor to the annual event, according to the Irish Voice.

“There are no grounds in the Catholic faith for excluding a gay group,” Fay said. “Christianity ought to be known for extending hospitality to those who are marginalized.”

Veteran activists Ann Maguire and Paul O’Dwyer, who have been involved in efforts to have openly LGBT New Yorkers participate in the annual Fifth Avenue St. Patrick’s Day Parade for years. | ANDY HUMM

Veteran activists Anne Maguire and Paul O’Dwyer, who have been involved in efforts to have openly LGBT New Yorkers participate in the annual Fifth Avenue St. Patrick’s Day Parade for years. | ANDY HUMM

This controversy started in 1991, when the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization (ILGO), a group of mostly new immigrants, including Fay, applied to march and was denied. A compromise was worked out that let their members march with Mayor David Dinkins within Division 7 of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, but despite some acceptance, they were also pelted with jeers and beer and excluded entirely thereafter, the organizers going to court for the right to exclude anyone they wanted to, which they won.

Big protests were held through the mid-1990s, with mass arrests. The demonstrations, mostly maintained by Irish Queers, grew smaller over the years, but this year was old home week. Anne Maguire and Paul O’Dwyer, two ILGO leaders, were there.

“I had to come here today because it’s not over –– and has spanned two centuries,” said Maguire. With all the advances in LGBT rights in recent years, she said, “everything has changed except this parade.”

O’Dwyer is encouraged by the Guinness pullout.

Brendan Fay, another longtime Irish gay activist who founded the inclusive St. Pat's for All Parade in Queens. | DONNA ACETO

Brendan Fay, another longtime Irish gay activist who founded the inclusive St. Pat's for All Parade in Queens. | DONNA ACETO

“You can’t get more Irish than Guinness,” he said. While he is not hopeful for a positive resolution of the dispute, he doesn’t think the parade will survive the loss of sponsorship long-term.

When Bratton marched past the demonstrators, “he looked, smiled, and turned away,” said Gelman. “He does not give two craps about the queer community.” He also refused to answer the coalition’s letter seeking a meeting on the issue. Gelman said she thinks the publicity about the dispute created some hostility from cops and firefighters marching in this year’s event.

In a first, the New York City Council under the new speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, pulled its banner from the 253rd parade. In recent years, it had fronted for just the handful of politicians who marched. This year, former Council Speaker Peter Vallone, Sr., and his sons, former Councilman Peter Vallone, Jr., and current Councilman Paul Vallone were the only ones behind a new banner that read: “New York Public Officials.” Vallone, Sr., said he was marching, “For God, country, and family,” ignoring questions about the exclusion of LGBT Irish groups.

While some Irish government ministers visiting New York are boycotting the parade, Prime Minister Enda Kenny insisted on marching. Out gay Irish Senator David Norris, a veteran activist who led the fight to get rid of Ireland’s sodomy laws, was among members of four Irish political parties to urge him not to. He told the Christian Science Monitor, “As an Irish man who through my mother has direct descent from the ancient kings of Ossory, Leinster, and the High Kingship of Tara, I find the claiming of the parade as an exclusively Roman Catholic festival –– despite being originally founded in the US by exiled Irish Protestants –– completely ridiculous.”

Kenny said earlier, “The St. Patrick's Day parade is a parade about our Irishness and not about sexuality, and I would be happy to participate in it.” But the New York organizers have made it not about Irishness, but about adherence to Catholic doctrine, even if the doctrine applied here by the parade organizers –– and with the archbishop’s blessing, as the Irish Voice reports–– is at odds with the conciliatory tone Pope Francis is purportedly encouraging on gay issues.

Allen Roskoff (with Bill Dobbs, on the left behind him) speaks at the Irish Queers press conference. | DONNA ACETO

Allen Roskoff (with Bill Dobbs, on the left behind him) speaks at the Irish Queers press conference. | DONNA ACETO

In London, an LGBT contingent from the local Irish group Mind Yourself marched in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 16 for the first time, though Father Bernárd Lynch of the group said they weren’t excluded before, they simply had never applied.

“Our reception along the parade route was joyful, enthusiastic, and full of welcome,” he wrote via email.

This past fall, in an historic first, the group was invited to the Irish Embassy in London for a reception, “and the ambassador [Dan Mulhall] went out of his way to tell us that this was not simply tokenism. The Irish government is committed to our full and equal inclusion in the life of our country of origin, whether here or abroad,” Lynch wrote. Similar receptions at the residence of the Irish consul in New York, Noel Kilkenny, have been held for several years for the Queens St. Pat’s for All Parade.

“Remember the Irish and London St. Patrick Day Parades are secular events,” Lynch wrote. “The Catholic Church has no control whatsoever, unlike the ‘medieval control’ exercised in my home city of New York.”

Toward the end of the protest in New York, Shane McEvoy, 32, said he had been in every St. Patrick’s Day Parade with his family since he was a baby, but not this year.

“If bands and civil services and my family can march, every other group should be able to,” he said.

The message is sinking in and it is becoming harder and harder for right-thinking people to stand with the parade organizers. Indeed, it may have been because of the cold as well, but spectators along the sidelines were much sparser than in past years. By 1 p.m., the reviewing stands in the East 60s were virtually empty, with more than two hours of parade left to go.

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