On Wednesday history was made. The thing that Irish gay groups have asked for – for 24 years – was finally granted by the New York Saint Patrick’s Day committee: a gay group will march in the Fifth Avenue St. Patrick’s Day Parade under its own identifying banner.
When the news broke in The Irish Voice that Out@NBCUniversal, a LGBT support group at NBC, will march longtime Irish LGBT activist Brendan Fay, who has fought the ban on Irish gay groups for a quarter of a century, was momentarily speechless.
“First I read that the Grand Marshall of the 2015 was going to be Cardinal Timothy Dolan,” Fay tells IrishCentral. “The next sentence was that for the first time a gay group will be marching with their own banner in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade on Fifth Avenue.”
Fay says he was both baffled and delighted by the news. “It was a very emotional moment for me to hear this because for twenty-four years I have been part of the campaign to allow Irish gay groups to march.”
In a statement yesterday Craig Robinson, Executive Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at NBCUniversal, confirmed that the LGBT group had applied to march, but he did not indicate why the group was chosen.
Mindful of his past experiences with the parade committee, Fay is careful to strike a cautious tone now. “It’s a truly historic departure and a shift in the policy. But for decades the parade committee has come up with so many reasons to exclude Irish gay groups. They said no to banners, no to flags, no to rainbow sashes, no to ribbons. Every effort made by Christine Quinn when was she was speaker were all turned down.”
With the precise details of the shift in the parade committees’ stance still emerging, Fay isn’t quite ready to put the champagne on ice. “A LGBT group within the NBC Corporation will march in the parade. It’s not an Irish LGBT group,” he says.
Although parade directors voted unanimously to include the NBC group, Fay is concerned that only Out@NBCUniversal has been invited, fearing Irish gay groups may be turned away when they apply to participate the following year.
“To be told that we can only apply for future years? What does that mean? Either you’re welcome or your not. I can’t imagine political leaders in Ireland or the US wanting to support a group that continues to exclude Irish LGBT people.”
When asked if invited would he be willing to march with the NBC contingent, Fay was unequivocal. “I don’t belong to NBC. I belong with the Irish LGBT groups that march under their own banners, whether it is Lavender and Green, Irish Queers or St. Pat’s For All.”
Bill Donohue, president of the conservative Catholic League watchdog group and a longtime supporter of the ban on gay groups marching under their own banner, struck an equally cautious tone in response to the historic news.
“Our position all along has been that the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade committee has the right to decide who they want in their parade under their own rules,” Donohue told IrishCentral. “They have said no to gay groups and that was fine with me.”
If the parade committee is going to make this change now Donohue wants them to clarify if they will they also make the change regarding other groups who were previously banned from marching under their own banner, such as pro-life Catholic groups?
Donohue says he has received verbal assurances from parade officials that this will be the case, but so far he has seen nothing in writing. “That’s an important qualifier,” he adds. “I hope what I was told is not going to be reversed because if it is I will pull the Catholic League unit from the parade.”
“I actually sympathize with some of those Irish gay groups to the extent that why is it that this NBC group made the cut and they didn’t?” he added.
Asked if he will call off the Catholic League’s boycott of Guinness – after the iconic Irish company withdrew its support of the parade over the exclusion of Irish gay groups – Donohue was non-committal. “At this point it’s too early to say. I want to wait for clarity from the parade committee over how the new rule unfolds. I also want to see if the groups that march fall within the traditions of the parade.”
In a statement yesterday the Irish Queers group cautiously welcomed news of the parade committees’ rule change. “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, Mayor de Blasio and others, 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.”
Meanwhile in Ireland Rory O’Neill, the celebrity drag performer known as Panti, whose speech on anti-gay discrimination made him a public figure in Ireland and an international star abroad this year, told IrishCentral:
“I’m pleased that a group is being allowed to march, though I think allowing one group is a bit measly. Still, it’s a start, so I won’t gripe, and will hope that the AOH sees sense and allows other LGBT groups to march in 2016, after dipping their toe into the modern world next March and seeing that a more inclusive parade is actually a better parade.”
“All parades are better with gays in them!” O’Neill added. “I do think it’s unfortunate that it wasn’t until sponsors used their weight that there was any movement on this issue, but apparently in parades, as in so many things, money talks.
O’Neill says he is a fan of the Sunnyside Woodside inclusive parade, where his participation as Grand Marshall this year made international headlines. He hopes that the tradition will continue, regardless of the rule change on Fifth Avenue.
“I also do hope that the inclusive St Pat’s For All parade in Queens continues regardless, and I think it will. It’s a lovely, life-affirming, joyous event that stands on it’s own, and not just as some kind of “anti-Manhattan parade,” so I hope the wonderful, diverse group of people who organize it – with virtually no sponsorship – continue to, and I hope people continue to support it. You can’t have too many parades! And there’s more than one kind of Irishness to celebrate.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who boycotted the parade earlier this year because of its policy on Irish gay groups, described yesterdays announcement as “a step forward for inclusion."
Mayor de Blasio is the first mayor in 20 years to outright boycott the parade. Yesterday he said that Fifth Avenue needs a “truly inclusive parade” and added that he wouldn’t make a decision on whether to march next year until he clarifies what the new decision means.