Brendan Fay’s belief that an Irish gay group should be part of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade has cost him in many ways. He has multiple civil disobedience arrests on his record, lost his job as a religion teacher at a Catholic high school and suffered through years of rejection, but the Co. Louth native is in a celebratory mood these days.
When Fay received the call from NYC St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Inc., Chairman Dr. John Lahey last week informing him that his Lavender and Green Alliance was approved to march up Fifth Avenue next year, the first Irish gay group to do so, he was overcome with emotion.
“I listened to Dr. Lahey say the words and I paused. He was so gracious,” a tearful Fay told the Irish Voice.
“To get that call after 25 years was overwhelming. I felt great joy. The call and the huge door it opened … I hope Dr. Lahey knows how much it means to us and all of those who have supported us for so many years.”
The first person Fay told was his Dr. Tom Moulton, and then he called Kathleen Walsh D’Arcy, who co-founded the St. Pat’s for All parade with Fay in 1999. “She was overjoyed. The news is huge,” Fay said.
Fay started fielding calls from all over the U.S. and Ireland soon after the news broke last Tuesday, many of them from supporters who still had their doubts.
“People couldn’t believe it after all these years. I told them it was true and to get ready for a great day next year,” Fay said.
Fay recalled past struggles, like marching on Fifth Avenue in 1991 with then New York Mayor David Dinkins and members of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization (ILGO) who were invited to march behind the AOH Division 7 banner at the invitation of the late Bernie Morris, an AOH leader at the time. The reception from spectators was harsh, with many throwing beer cans and shouting abuse at the gay marchers.
The media publicity impacted Fay’s professional life. A high school religion teacher at Mary Louis Academy in Queens at the time, Fay was dismissed from his job after being photographed at the parade with Robert Rygor holding an “out and proud” sign. The visa he had through the job was also revoked.
“For sure it was a tough time,” Fay said.
ILGO and its supporters continued to protest the parade, and in 1993 Fay was arrested for civil disobedience. Arrests in subsequent years at other parades followed, but in 1999 Fay thought a breakthrough was near when ILGO was invited to march in the Throggs Neck St. Patrick’s Day in the Bronx. Pressure was brought to bear on the organizers, however, and the invite was rescinded.
In 1999, after years of rejection, protests and arrests, Fay came up with the idea to host a St. Pat’s for All parade in Queens to welcome everyone who wanted to celebrate. The parade first stepped off in 2000 with a host of supportive politicians, including New York Senate candidate Hillary Clinton, and has grown every year since.
“I really hoped that there would have been a parade that welcomed us, but there wasn’t,” says Fay. “So we went created a welcome for ourselves in the community.”
But marching on Fifth Avenue, Fay says, is validation for all the years of protest, and a tribute to the dedication of many on the frontlines who have passed, chief among them the late Robert Rygor, who died of AIDS in 1994. His parents Kathleen, a native of Ireland, and Stanley, a button accordionist in the local Irish music scene, worked with Fay for years on achieving equality.
Now in their eighties, Fay called the Rygors with the news. “They took up their son’s cause,” said Fay, “and they never stopped fighting.”
The Lavender and Green Alliance, founded by Fay in 1994, will have a brand new banner to march behind on Fifth Avenue, Fay says, and a large contingent of supporters past and present.
“We’re so looking forward to celebrating our heritage and culture, and what could be more significant than getting to do so on the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising. And from the calls I’ve had, people really appreciate the significance,” Fay said.
When asked what he would say to those opposed to Lavender and Green’s presence on Fifth Avenue next March, Fay offered conciliatory words.
“I would welcome the opportunity to meet with them and talk. Perhaps that is what has not happened,” he said.
“And I hope that they would agree that it’s time to recover the spirit that the Irish are known for, warmth and hospitality.”