The St. Patrick’s Day parade next year will be unlike any other in New York’s history, which is saying something for an institution that is older than the republic itself. For the first time, a group of gays and lesbians will march as an organization, behind its own banner.
That’s a step forward not only for the parade, but for the city as a whole. And it is a victory for New York’s vibrant LGBT community.
A parade designed to be a celebration of Irish and Irish-American culture instead became a lightning rod in the early 1990s when the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization was denied the opportunity to march behind its own banner. The controversy appeared to die down after several years of bitter controversy, but as the marriage equality movement gained acceptance and the LGBT community began to press the issue again, the parade faced an existential crisis.
Last year, one of the parade’s leading sponsors, Guinness, dropped its support of the parade over the ban, imperiling the parade committee’s finances. Mayor de Blasio refused to march—a first since David Dinkins skipped the parade in 1992 and ’93—as did several other city and state politicians. Parade organizers feared more embarrassments and a growing boycott next year, and the Irish know all about the power of boycotts. The word itself comes from Irish agrarian protests against notorious land agent Charles Boycott in the 19th century.
Skeptics have argued that economics, not an authentic change of heart, led to the parade committee’s vote for inclusion. Perhaps, but the result is satisfactory all the same. The committee, especially Quinnipiac University president John Lahey, deserves credit for crafting a solution that does justice to the city’s tradition of tolerance.
Credit also goes to Cardinal Timothy Dolan for his unquestioned support for the committee’s decision. His Eminence even agreed to serve as the grand marshal of the parade, and that’s an outcome nobody would have predicted in 1990, when this cultural war started. Back then, the parade committee and then-Cardinal John O’Connor worked in tandem to ban gay groups. Now, a generation later, one of Cardinal O’Connor’s successors will lead the first parade that includes a self-identified gay group. That’s progress.
For 25 years, Irish gays and lesbians have asked simply to march behind a banner in the world’s greatest celebration of Irish culture. And now, at last, they will have that chance.