St. Patrick’s Day: NOT a great day to be Irish if you’re gay: Most parades exclude us

by Peter Cassels

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday March 1, 2010

It's with a great sense of irony that most St. Patrick's Day celebrations exclude gay and lesbian Irish-Americans.

Only three out of the hundreds of parades and other celebrations throughout the U.S. that mark the birthday of Ireland's patron saint welcome community members.

Two are in gay Meccas-San Francisco and Key West. The third, in Queens, N.Y., was created expressly to welcome LGBT Irish-Americans. In fact, it is called a "welcoming" St. Pat's parade and all groups, regardless of their ethnicity or minority status, are included.

Why is this so ironic? Because for centuries, the Irish themselves were among the most discriminated against group in the United States and Great Britain. Their struggle mirrors ours. Until the early 20th century, they suffered job, housing and other forms of discrimination in the U.S.

A hundred years ago in the Northeast, window signs and advertising for job openings included the words "no Irish need apply." There were signs in windows of public establishments, "No dogs or Irish." Before the Civil War, they were considered lower than slaves in some parts of the country.

Victorian England and 19th century America portrayed the Irish as heavy drinkers. It's a stereotype that still hasn't completely disappeared (and that some seem to work to reinforce on March 17, the day marked on the Roman Catholic calendar day to honor the patron saint of Ireland) .

It wasn't until they grasped the reins of political power in such cities as New York and Boston that their minority status ended. But it wasn't really until John Kennedy's ascendency to the presidency in 1960 that the Irish had truly "arrived" in the corridors of power in this country.

There's even a word that describes hostility towards the Irish -hibernophobia, derived from Hibernia, the name the Romans gave the country.

This is starting to sound familiar. All one has to do is replace "hibernophobia" with "homophobia" to complete the analogy.

Yet the vast majority of St. Pat's celebrations exclude LGBTs. They can do so legally because they're protected under Hurley v. the Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston. That landmark 1995 U.S. Supreme Court decision said the private group organizing the march can do so under the Constitution's First Amendment.

For years, LGBT activists have sought to break the barrier. In New York, the fight has been public, intense and, at times, downright nasty.

In 1991, Irish immigrant Brendan Fay and a few other activists formed the Irish Lesbian & Gay Organization to challenge the Ancient Order of Hibernians' ban on LGBT contingents marching in the annual March 17 parade down New York's Fifth Avenue. It's the oldest in the U.S. and the largest St. Patrick's Day celebration in the world.

Ironically, two parades in the "auld sod" now welcome gays-those in Dublin and Cork. It should also be noted for the record that the Irish never did much about their patron saint's day, except maybe for a memorial mass, until the Irish-Americans, seeking to assert their ethnicity in a new land, made it into a festival of marching bands, policemen, leprechauns, and green everything (from bagels to beer).

ILGO sparked a showdown between parade organizers and then-New York Mayor David Dinkins in 1991. When the activists were refused entry, Dinkins defended them and reached a compromise.

"He marched along with us and the more liberal AOH Division 7," Fay told EDGE in an interview. That event made parade organizers more determined to keep gays and lesbians out, he added.

"It was a life-changing day for me," Fay continued. "Most people's memories are of the jeers. Someone even hurled a beer can at the mayor. Some described it as walking through a gauntlet of hate." It only exacerbated the situation that Dinkins was the city's first black mayor.

For Fay, however, that day proved transformational, "a day of unexpected joy," as he describes it. "For the first time in my life, I was out in the open in daytime on Fifth Avenue. All three parts of my life came together for the first time: being Irish, being gay and being Catholic. It was a transforming experience."

In subsequent years, Fay and other activists were arrested several times when they tried to march in the Manhattan parade and ones in Brooklyn and The Bronx. Then, in 1999, frustrated with the status quo, Fay and ILGO founded "St. Pat's for All," a celebration welcoming everyone. The first was held in 2000.

The 11th annual event kicks off with a concert on Tuesday, March 2, at the Irish Arts Center, in Hell's Kitchen. The parade on Sunday, March 7, follows a route through the heavily Irish neighborhoods of Sunnyside and Woodside. These neighborhood are probably as Irish as Dublin - they're ports of entry for new immigrants as well as established families.

The Queens parade always been tremendously popular, with mothers holding up their children and groups of men cheering from the sidewalks.

"Our intention is to celebrate diversity," he told EDGE. "We welcome all ethnicities. Parades have long been a way for people to celebrate their heritage."

Gay organizations having contingents in the Queens parade include Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), the Lavender & Green Alliance, Dignity New York and Metropolitan Community Church.

They're joined by groups as diverse as the Boys and Girls Clubs, the New York Fire Department, and Notre Dame and St. John's University alumni. There also will be a special contingent supporting the people of Haiti after January's devastating earthquake.

Over the years, St. Pat's For All has honored many notables of Irish descent, including Father Mychal Judge, the Franciscan NYFD chaplain who died at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 (who is being considered for sainthood and who was semi-openly gay); Philip Berrigan, the Vietnam War protester; and writer-actors Frank, Malachy, Aiden and Michael McCourt. This year's honorees are New York City Councilor Daniel Dromm and Sister Mary Lanning, a community activist.

Among the dignitaries participating are Mayor Michael Bloomberg, openly gay City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and state Sen. Tom Duane, both of whom live in Chelsea. Also attending will be state Rep. Jose Peralta, who's running in a special election March 16 against former state Sen. Hiram Monserrate, the Queens Democrat expelled by his colleagues after his misdemeanor conviction for domestic assault. Despite the expulsion, Monserrate, one of those who voted against legalizing marriage equality in New York, is running in the special election to return to his seat.

A member of the Irish consulate always comes and reads a message from Irish President Mary McAleese, Fay said.

Elsewhere, gays are gearing up to celebrate the "Wearin' of the Green" in the only other inclusive events.

Among the contingents marching in the San Francisco parade on Saturday, March 13, are the Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band and the city's Gay Men's Chorus.

The same day, Key West will hold a St. Patty's Day Bar Stroll featuring such gay décor as pink shamrocks and a pink leprechaun.

Parades that don't welcome LGBTs can be a thorny issue for some politicians.

Quinn, New York's second most powerful government leader, has stayed away from the Fifth Avenue celebration since organizers told her she couldn't wear even a pin, button or sash showing gay pride.

Apparently not wanting to risk alienating any of his Irish constituents, Bloomberg also marches down Fifth Avenue.

In Boston, Mayor Tom Menino has stayed away from its parade for years because of the LGBT ban. Boston still does not allow gays to march in its parade. The organizers dug in their heels, like the AOH in NYC after the Supremes protected them in that court ruling.

There are no counter parades or other demos there, either. Interestingly, every appellate court decided in favor of the gays. It was only when the case reached the high court that their rulings were reversed. The Supremes applied the same logic (or, to some, lack thereof) to the infamous Boy Scouts decision.

Private organizations, they said, are protected under the First Amendment - even those that take up a large city's main street for a day, cause traffic congestion, leave large amounts of refuse, include every public figure and huge contingents of public workers, and entail huge cost overruns for local police departments.

Peter Cassels is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's Excellence in Journalism award. His e-mail address is [email protected].