As a kid, I never understood the purpose of the St. Patrick's Day parade. It always seemed an excruciatingly boring experience: no floats, no balloons, just firefighters not fighting fires, police not fighting crime, and a bunch of random strangers who looked vaguely like they could be related to me. Of course there was more -- marching bands, fire engines, bagpipes -- but it all seemed like senseless noise amid an enormous, obnoxious crowd. It was ostensibly about Irish pride, but I could never figure what everyone was so proud about.
For many Americans, the St. Patrick's day parade represents some generic version of what it means to be Irish, or of Irish descent. In recent decades, controversy has erupted over organizers' policy of excluding certain groups, and in particular Irish LGBT identity groups, from marching in the Fifth Avenue parade. Even last year's inclusion of a token LGBT group from NBC (to ensure the network would televise the parade and to appease sponsors), the parade reinforced an image of Irish Americans as intolerant, homophobic and stubborn. While this might remind you of Archie Bunker, the parade controversies made me think of my father.
My father, was Irish, American, deaf and gay. He was also a devout Catholic for his entire life. Born in 1945 in Brooklyn to parents who had emigrated from the West of Ireland in the 1920s, and living in the community he did, no one had a problem with the Irish Catholic part of his resume. His deafness was accepted as a trial, perhaps some version of God working in mysterious ways. But even after he "came out," my father always seemed ashamed of his homosexuality. He had grown up in a society where this was something to be denied, or at the very least hidden, ideas he had internalized thoroughly.
As a result, he was not very comfortable expressing pride in his identity, at least not in public. The one exception I witnessed was the 1994 Pride parade in New York.
My sister and I met my father and his friends in front of Tiffany's on 57th Street, and the parade was overwhelming (the parade was larger than usual because it marked the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riot). Hundreds of thousands of people from all over, with groups representing nearly every country and many different co-identities, and when the deaf contingent came past, we joined the parade.
Although my father had gone to other pride events, I had never gone with him. In fact, for a long time I thought the '94 parade was the only one he attended, because we never spoke of his gay identity, or of politics. (Whenever I tried to breach those subjects, he ignored or deflected my questions. Had I been deaf or gay, perhaps I would have pressed him further to talk about these things, though I doubt the outcome would have been different.)
But at that parade, on a beautiful sunlit June day in 1994, I saw my father happy and proud, smiling and waving to the cheering throng. He flashed the sign for "I love you," index and pinky fingers raised with thumb extended out.
I will always cherish that memory because it is one of the few moments when he seemed demonstrably and genuinely comfortable with himself -- and in public, to boot. He was welcome, he belonged, and he was happy. For that moment his identity, or rather his identities, were not a burden.
With the changes that have come so quickly in recent years, it may be easy to forget what a long struggle preceded the attainment of acceptance (as opposed to tooth-gritting "tolerance"), and what effect this has on the real lives of people around the country. The cultural forces that allowed the Fifth Avenue parade organizers to keep gay groups out still exist, but they are no longer prevalent. This year, thanks to the dedication and hard work of activists (involving protests, civil disobedience and arrests), Irish gay groups are being included in the "official" St. Patrick's Day parade. Some of those activists and supporters started a separate event, for all of the groups that had been excluded. The St. Pat's for All just had its 17th annual event in Sunnyside and Woodside, Queens.
And while it would be ridiculous to say that the fact of the parade's restrictive and exclusionary policy was in some way the cause of my father's internalized self-loathing, I can't help but wonder how different his life would have been if the attitudes that fueled the official parade's ban on LGBT and other groups had dissipated sooner. Or if the attitude evinced by St. Pat's for All had been more present in New York (as it is in Ireland), perhaps he would have been a little less tortured about himself and his identity.
My father died almost 12 years ago, but I'm not sure if he would have celebrated the recent changes, or whether he would care to march in either the Manhattan parade or in St. Pat's for All in Queens. But on his behalf, and in his memory, I congratulate the activists on their hard-fought victory, and I applaud the organizers of the alternative parade for continuing their event in years to come. Though the Fifth Avenue parade has become more inclusive, St. Pat's for All has a vibrant and joyful spirit of its own, and is enthusiastically supported by the local community.
And I want to thank the Fifth Avenue parade committee for their ability to allow change, and to represent the very traditional Irish value of hospitality and the American (and New York) value of inclusion. I am certain I am not alone when I say that as an Irish-American, the St. Patrick's Day parade has finally given me a reason to feel genuine pride.