It was surreal to hear a round of applause when New York parade Vice Chairman Dr. John Lahey announced at the 2015 Grand Marshal inauguration that the NBC gay group Out@NBCUniversal would march in this year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Lahey called it a “change of tone, a gesture of goodwill” and said it was about “keeping the parade above politics.”
It was all that and it was history.
John Lahey was standing at the podium in the function room of the New York Athletic Club (NYAC), on Central Park South, when he made the historic announcement.
Outside, incongruously, a group of animal rights protesters were deploring the use of carriage horses in the park.
Perhaps they missed the message, but what was being announced in the NYAC was a horse of an entirely different color.
Many of those present would have fought such an announcement tooth and nail just a few years ago. There was a near riot on Fifth Avenue in 1991 when a gay group marched attached to a rebel AOH division.
Then-Mayor David Dinkins and lifelong civil rights activist Paul O’Dwyer compared walking up Fifth that year to Selma, Alabama as beer cans and insults rained down.
Times have changed.
After 24 years or so of conflict on the issue a resolution is in sight.
Now the war weariness around the issue of gays in the parade has finally lifted and everyone seems ready to move on.
Lahey has been the hero of the entire movement to modernize the parade. The president of Quinnipiac University, he is literally head and shoulders above those on the committee standing at over 6-foot 5.
He and a few other top Irish American executives such as Frank Comerford of NBC have taken it upon themselves to rescue the parade from likely insolvency and worse, intolerance.
It was evident that he is now de facto running the parade. Seated close to him, Parade Chairman John Dunleavy did not utter a public word and batted away all media inquiries. It is not hard to imagine that he was a reluctant fellow traveler.
He held out against gays marching for so many years that his eventual capitulation was a shock to many.
But any hope Dunleavy had of stemming the tide was surely blown away when Cardinal Dolan, this year’s Grand Marshal, put himself firmly on the side of the reformers.
That was immediately apparent when the eminent one got up to speak.
He confirmed he had full confidence in the parade committee and made clear the “decision was not mine to make” but said he had “no trouble with the decision at all” and noted that the parade had never been free of controversy but that the spirit of unity in the community was badly needed.
Somewhere in the Vatican Pope Francis smiled and a kinder, gentler Catholicism took hold.
The New York Times pegged it as historic and said “The decision is a striking reflection of the evolution of gay rights in the city and in American society, and is a measure of changing attitudes in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.”
Amen to that.
Afterwards guests mingled and cocktails were drunk. Cardinal Dolan posed for a picture with practically everyone in the room. This is how history happens, first with a rush then a return to normality. The sun rises.
There will be many other obstacles to overcome and harsh words put about but as W. B.Yeats said “peace comes dropping slow.”
It certainly did last night in New York City.
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