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What is the lesson behind banning the gay community from the St. Patrick's Day parade in New York? Photo by: Getty

NYC St. Patrick's gay ban: deny others' humanity and diminish your own

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What is the lesson behind banning the gay community from the St. Patrick's Day parade in New York? Photo by: Getty

There are Irish people who would travel one hundred miles to give offense, and Irish people who would travel one hundreds miles to take it. Most of us are not those kind of Irish people.

But in Ireland you will learn early on about these dedicated offense givers and takers, because frankly they've set the cultural and political agenda for the rest of us for whole swaths of our adult lives.

In the north the diehards on both sides will accept nothing less than the total defeat of their political opponents. It doesn't matter to them that that defeat is unattainable. In fact it, only seems to inspire them further.

In this way, otherwise small percentages of people, given a megaphone, can set the agenda for the whole nation. It can take decades before these true-believers quit the stage. The war in the north was over for years before it officially ended, thanks to their lousy grandstanding.

Grandstanding can be so exhausting to witness or participate in. It can become like a badly cast play. All the wrong faces mouthing all the wrong lines. And the rest of us seemingly helpless to stop them.  It can make you want to take to your bed and stay there.

That’s why there's a feeling of exhaustion and incredulity surrounding the now quarter of a century struggle over the ban on Irish gay groups in the Saint Patrick's Day Parade in New York City. That play has been badly written and cast, and it has gone on too long.

Some have suggested that the conservative old guard, those who are most implacably opposed to participation of Irish LGBT groups, will soon die off. Just let the old dinosaurs take one last promenade around Jurassic Park before the meteor strikes, they say.

But as well as being breathtakingly cynical, this is probably wishful thinking. Deep discomfort with people who challenge your understanding of reality and how it's constituted doesn't really have a time limit.

So as the Fifth Avenue Parade marinades in a two and a half decade stalemate of its own making it's slouching rather than marching confidently toward 2016. Instead of being the global showcase for the Irish that it should be, it's a clouded affair, having become an annual rampart in the wider culture wars that should make everyone – participant and dissenter – concerned.

The 1916 Proclamation reads: 'The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally…"

That's unequivocal. The echo of the Declaration of Independence is entirely intentional. The Irish nation would ensure religious AND civil liberty to its people. The mistake the Saint Patrick's Day Parade committee made was arguing in court that they would protect its religious ethos over all other considerations. That contention flies in the face of the spirit of the Irish Proclamation and the American Declaration. To paraphrase King Lear on the heath, they should have taken more care of that.

The spectacular creativity of artists – such a feature of the parades held in Ireland – is missing from the New York parade. The principled embrace of dissenter and non-believer is missing from the New York parade. The energy and flair of Irish gay groups are missing from the parade.

Instead of finding an Irish embrace these groups find nothing but a cold house and no word of welcome. This is the face we present to the wider world each marching season. It's a hard face.

Because it has so narrowly defined what an Irish person is or can be, the parade has become overwhelmingly male and militaristic. Instead of being an Irish parade for all the Irish it has become a Catholic parade with an ethnic element. It features more white haired men over 60 than I have seen in a civic parade elsewhere on earth. There's a Soviet-era humorlessness to much of it. It can seem that all that's missing are some nuclear warheads on flatbed trucks.

But why do Irish gay groups even want to participate, some ask? Well the 'Irish' that precedes 'gay groups' should answer your question. Not everyone knows this, but the New York Gay Pride Parade allows every major religious denomination (including Catholics) to participate in theirs, under their own banners.

So Irish gay groups are fighting court ordered invisibility because they know that invisibility is the hallmark of their oppression. If you are not seen and not heard you don't signify. It's much, much easier to dismiss the concerns and dignity of the invisible. There may be a day when it is no longer important for Irish gay groups to protest or simply stand up for themselves, but the ban on their participation underlines the fact that that day has not yet arrived.

In the north the nationalist people stayed silent and invisible for decades as the unionist-controlled state gerrymandered and exploited them, making them invisible and inconsequential – guests in their own nation. 

The lesson was that invisibility makes you powerless. Invisibility robs you of your voice and it can even get you killed. Just look at Russia or Nigeria or Uganda to see the work legally enforced invisibility can do. 

And as the stalemate deepens here the world moves on. It will come as a terrific surprise to the organizers of the Saint Patrick's Day Parade in New York City that a drag queen called Panti Bliss is seriously in the running to become the grand marshal of the Dublin parade.

It will surprise them to know that the Irish gay groups have long participated and won the best float in the parade a few years ago. Despite conservative protests, what gay people do – or don't do – in the bedroom is their own business. It has never been the issue. It's the legal rights we grant – or deny them –  because they are gay that is their business and everybody's business, frankly.

I have been personally shocked by the deep contempt that's unleashed by some within the Irish community over Irish gay groups. I wonder at the intensity of it. Don't people realize that it could be your own kids that your blackguarding? Or your neighbor's kids? Or your niece or your nephew? The thing about poison is that it's indiscriminate. 

Is this hard, cold message of exclusion the message that you'll send them all your lives? If it is, can you be surprised when others treat them badly, or violently, or discriminate against them, or bully them or silence them with their fists?

'It is a terrible, an inexorable law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one's own,' James Baldwin wisely wrote.

We are all diminished by this cold house that offers no word of welcome to our gay and Irish friends and relations; we have been keeping it for far too long.

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