Irish LGBT rights activist and documentary filmmaker Brendan Fay, organizer of the all-inclusive St. Pat's For All parade in Queens, sees a new path toward a solution to the parade marching issue.
Fay, 55, a longtime Irish community activist, says a solution could be achieved with goodwill on both sides.
Fay has met and corresponded with Parade Chairman John Donleavy in the past and the relationship has been described as friendly.
“The first step in the search for a resolution is for the parties to sit down with one another,” he tells IrishCentral. “I think the time has come. We at Lavender and Green and St. Pat's For All would ask that we be treated no different than any other group in the parade.”
The second step, Fay says, is that the groups should march under their banner. Fay points out this his group don't have the word gay on their banner and never have. “Lavender and Green Alliance: Muinteoir Aerach na hEireann ,” it reads.
“I have been surprised by the kinds of people who have been asking “do you have a banner that doesn't have the word “gay” in it?” Fay confides. “As it happens it doesn't have the word gay in it. But even asking that question implies there's something wrong with the word and by extension the orientation. That points to a deeper issue. People are having conversations about us without us. That needs to end.”
The third step is to remember that until the parade steps off there is always an opportunity for leadership, for dialogue and resolution until the whistle goes. “I think if people are determined to put this behind us we can. The Parade Committee already welcomes many Irish groups with their banners and we would would like them to do likewise.”
Respect, dialogue and a willingness to address the issue will see real progress, Fay says. An Irish community forum on the issue is also something he would welcome. “The ban doesn't just reflect on the Parade Committee, it's a reflection on all of us in the Irish community,” Fay says.
“Dialogue is the only way forward. We've learned from the North it's the only thing that can help. We've been sending a message from Fifth Avenue each year for decades that says “we're Ireland of the un-welcomes.” That has to end.”
Fay, who holds a BA in Theology and Sociology from St. Patrick's College, Maynooth and an MA in Theology from St. John's here in New York, first came to the US in 1984, one more secretly gay young Irish man seeking temporary parole from the insular and conservative nation he'd grown up in.
At the time he had intended to stay for two years but the city worked its magic. After graduation he took a job teaching religion at the Mary Louise Academy, a Catholic girls high school in Jamaica, Queens. There he began to seriously contemplate staying on in America.
At night Fay explored the city's many Irish bars and - more furtively - its many gay clubs, all the while keeping his orientation a closely guarded secret. But all the years of hiding had taken a toll. Drinking helped him cope with his secret but it was also making everything worse.
It was coming out that saved him, he says. “In Ireland we were still criminals,” he tells IrishCentral. “The impact of that is a story yet to be told. The furtiveness, the hiding. It had a debilitating impact.”
First his involvement with gay rights organizations like the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization (ILGO) helped him begin to live openly as a gay Irish man, then his budding activism on Irish gay issues helped him to recognize how closely his college training could complement his experience. When he stopped hiding, he also stopped drinking.
Newly energized by his decision to live as an openly gay man, Fay proudly marched in the Fifth Avenue Saint Patrick's Day Parade in the only year that Irish gay groups were ever permitted to in 1991. Video footage on the day displays the mixed reaction from the crowds which ranged from delighted applause to hurled beer cans and hateful epithets, capturing the moment when the mayor and other elected officials who marched with the Irish gay groups were booed for forty blocks.
“It was like marching in Birmingham, Alabama during the civil rights movement,” Mayor Dinkins told The New York Times afterward. “I knew there would be deep emotions, but I did not anticipate the cowards in the crowd. There was far, far too much negative comment,” he said.
Fay remembers it differently, “Most people remember the jeers but I remember the cheers,” he told the Huffington Post in 2010. “It changed my life because it allowed me to come out in a very public way and to unite the three significant parts of my life, Irish, Catholic and gay.”
Fay was orn in Athy, County Kildare in 1958. The family – five girls and two boys - moved to Drogheda when Fay was 10. His father worked in an asbestos factory and at the age of eight Fay found his first job packing spuds at the local grocery. Silver spoons were not in evidence.
In his spare time Fay liked to hang out with the nuns at the local convent. The Sisters of Mercy had a hugely positive impact on his life, he says. But as a teenager and young adult the authority figures he confided in – mainly priests – about his sexuality saw it as a thing to be overcome or changed. No one ever suggested that he embrace it. Leaving Ireland eventually became part of a longer journey to divest himself of its damaging example.
But standing up for himself on Fifth Avenue had immediate and far reaching consequences. After he marched in the 1991 parade Fay was quickly dismissed from his teaching job. Instead of reacting to the firing he responded to it. He delved further into his LGBT activism and heralded the work of Irish leaders who took a principled stand on LGBT issues.
One year after the 1991 parade debacle Irish LGBT groups found themselves totally banned from participating when the National AOH directed all AOH organizations to form separate corporations to run events such as the Parade. The parade is still run today by members of the AOH under a separate corporation, St Patrick’s Day Parade Inc. The ban on Irish LGBT groups participating under their own banner has endured for over two decades.
In response to the ban, and to intemperate interviews with parade committee members in the Irish Voice who at various times compared gay Irish people to Neo Nazi's and the Klu Klux Klann, in 2000 Fay co-created the all-inclusive St. Pat's For All Parade in Queens, which echoes the words of the Irish Proclamation (which in turn echo the Declaration of Independence) that all Irish citizens are born equal. The challenge to individual consciences of the New York parade committee was laid bare.
Flash forward to 2014 and Fay's group Lavender and Green may not be quite as prominent as the Irish Queers organization when it comes to the annual debate, but both will have to be a part of the discussion to find a solution.