As a young Irish Catholic New Yorker growing up in the East Village, I watched the St. Patrick's Day Parade with a rapt, but removed, pride. The only child of a punk-rock single mom, I never had occasion to march in the parade. We didn't fulfill what then seemed to be the main requirements for marching: My mom wasn't a cop, and I didn't take Irish stepdance classes. Our own parading days were filled crafting elaborate costumes for the annual Halloween march through our neighborhood, or trekking out to Coney Island to be boardwalk mermaids in the summer. But I still loved the St. Patrick's Day Parade. My public-school friends were Puerto Rican, Jewish, Dominican, and African-American, and donning green for the March festivities was my one chance to join the other freckled, pale-as-chalk redheads and feel, well, like less of a freak.
What I didn't know then was that when I grew up, I would be expressly and vocally excluded from this most visible display of Irish-American identity. No longer would my hometown parade affirm and celebrate my visibly Irish heritage but would instead cast me and my community out as a different kind of freak, one the parade organizers seemingly wished did not exist.
As a lesbian, the idea that I should have to hide my gay pride in order to celebrate my ancestry is abhorrent and insulting. For years I've stood on the Fifth Avenue sidelines of the St. Patrick's Day Parade and protested along with all the other Irish gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people who are banned from participating. So when I was driving home on Wednesday and heard the radio announce the news that the parade committee had finally lifted the LGBT ban, I nearly crashed the car out of fist-pumping elation. But as the program progressed, my excitement turned to disappointment and anger.
As the week progressed, newspapers and blogs around the world have falsely claimed that the organizing committee of New York City's St. Patrick's Day Parade has "lifted the ban on gay groups," or have "allowed gays to march for the first time," or that LGBT groups were set "to march as ban falls." All the above statements, culled from such venerable sources as The New York Times, Newsweek, and the Washington Post, are incorrect.
The parade organizers decided to allow NBC's LGBT corporate employee group to march in the parade under the group's "Out@NBCUniversal" banner in the March 2015 parade. The decision to allow only one LGBT-identified group -- which happens to be part of the network that televises the parade -- smacks of boardroom-deal striking and concession. There will be no Irish Queers, no Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, no banner or representation of any Irish LGBT community group. That's hardly because the Irish LGBT community doesn't care about marching; in fact, this announcement came as a shock to groups that have spent decades trying to persuade parade organizers to compromise.
Irish Queers, the New York City group that protests the parade each year, released a statement on Wednesday saying that the parade "has embarrassingly not ended the exclusion of Irish LGBT groups":
To the extent that parade organizers have changed their tune, it's the result of Irish Queers' many years of organizing, which led to last year's refusal to march by Council Speaker Mark-Viverito and others, and Mayor de Blasio, the withdrawal of major corporate sponsors and escalating criticism of uniformed city workers marching in the Parade.
We welcome this small victory, but our call remains the same -- 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.)
To claim that LGBT groups will march in 2015 "for the first time" is blatantly false and paves over a painful history. In 1990, 135 members of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization (ILGO) applied to march in the parade and were denied by the Ancient Order of Hibernians under the excuse that there were too many groups already included. The next year then-Mayor David Dinkins negotiated with the Hibernians and struck a deal to allow ILGO to march alongside the mayor. The results were riotous: The gay group was heckled, booed, and threatened with vitriolic hate speech along the entire parade route. When a homophobic heckler went so far as to throw a beer can at the mayor's head, Dinkins told The New York Times that the experience reminded him of marching in Birmingham, Alabama, during the height of the civil rights movement.
For years following the 1991 debacle, the struggle between the parade organizers and the Irish LGBT community took place in the courts. First ILGO was banned from the parade, then the New York City Commission on Human Rights said they couldn't be banned, then a judge said they could, and the fight wore on.
Current parade committee vice chairman John Lahey told the Washington Post that no other LGBT groups had applied to march in 2015. Perhaps that is because they have applied many times before in years past only to be denied vehemently. It was only 2006, after all, when longtime chairman John Dunleavy likened the Irish LGBT community to Nazis and the KKK, telling The Irish Times, "If an Israeli group wants to march in New York, do you allow neo-Nazis into their parade? If African-Americans are marching in Harlem, do they have to let the Ku Klux Klan into their parade?"
Parade organizers say LGBT groups are "free to apply" to march in 2016. What's missing from this statement is any recognition of the years of shunning, hostility, and even violence we Irish gays have experienced at the hand of the committee. If parade organizers want to stop losing sponsors and bury the political frenzy that rears its head every March in New York City, what's needed is more than a reluctant bending to a pressure move from a corporate sponsor. A good start would be to extend an invitation to Irish Queers, the group that stands dutifully on the sidelines of the parade each year in order to ensure that the Irish LGBT presence is seen and heard even as we are locked out of our own parade.
What the Irish LGBT community of New York deserves from the St. Patrick's Day Parade organizing committee, at this point, is a heartfelt apology.