BY KATHLEEN WARNOCK | For the first time since its founding in 2000, the St. Patrick’s for All Parade this year played host to a New York mayor who traveled to Sunnyside, Queens to march, but will not be on hand March 17 when the big Fifth Avenue St. Patrick’s Day Parade — which excludes openly gay participants — steps off.
On March 2, Mayor Bill de Blasio joined a group that included this year’s grand marshals, former State Senator Tom Duane and Terry McGovern, founder of the HIV Law Project.
A last minute addition to that contingent was Irish activist, entrepreneur, drag queen, and recent Internet sensation Panti Bliss, aka Rory O’Neill.
Preceded two nights before by a gala benefit concert at the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan, the parade opened with speeches and music from a flatbed truck. Words of support from de Blasio and other politicians and comments by Duane and McGovern were punctuated by reels and jigs performed by Irish musicians and dancers.
Panti recently sparked an international conversation on homophobia and exclusion with her “Noble Call,” delivered from the stage of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin — an event viewed more than half a million times on YouTube. Irish Americans led by Aidan Connolly brought her over to the US to march in Queens’ inclusive parade, where she fit right in.
“You have answered exclusion with inclusion and acceptance, met hatred with love and hospitality,” grand marshal McGovern, accompanied by her partner and her son, told the crowd from the flatbed stage. “We march today for human rights, we march against discrimination, and we honor that complex, living, evolving, beautiful landscape called Irish culture. I am so certain that what we are doing today, resisting exclusion, is cultural.”
Duane, her fellow grand marshal, recalled his own journey to the latest parade, from the days when the Irish gays and lesbians who wanted to march on Fifth Avenue were turned away and arrested, to his career in the City Council and State Senate, where he introduced the legislation that created marriage equality in New York.
“We are here to honor the extraordinary Irish heritage of this city and we want to do it in a way that respects all people and all communities,” de Blasio said to a roar from the crowd. “This is exactly the way I think we should celebrate in New York City — in an inclusive way.”
This year’s was not the new mayor’s first St. Pat’s for All — he marched as public advocate and participated in the very first Queens parade as part of Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign staff.
The mayor has won praise for his decision to return to former Mayor David Dinkins’ tradition of not participating in the discriminatory Fifth Avenue parade, but has faced pressure to bar other city workers from marching in uniform and with banners identifying their municipal government affiliation. Just days before the St. Pat’s for All event, when Police Commissioner William Bratton announced he would march with uniformed officers on March 17, de Blasio said, “I absolutely respect his decision.
Since the first march in 2000, which Brendan Fay founded “to celebrate Irish heritage and culture regardless of race, gender, creed, or sexual orientation,” he, co-chair Kathleen Walsh D’Arcy, and a team of volunteers built the event into an annual party that has expanded to include the Irish Arts Center concert, produced by Irish musician Brian Fleming. Smaller, more informal Irish music fests have also popped up in bars and restaurants throughout Sunnyside and Woodside, the neighborhoods the parade traverses.
This year’s contingent of elected officials was the largest to date, according to organizers. Public Advocate Letitia James, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, and State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli all said a few words, along with three members of the Queens delegation to the US House of Representatives — Joe Crowley, Carolyn Maloney, and Grace Meng.
A contingent of City Council members, hosted by Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, the local representative and the majority leader, included Daniel Dromm from Jackson Heights, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, two newly-elected members from the borough, Costa Constantinides and Paul Vallone, and three out gay freshman members, Corey Johnson of Chelsea, Carlos Menchaca of Brooklyn, and Ritchie Torres of the Bronx. Queens Borough President Melinda Katz was joined by her Manhattan counterpart, Gale Brewer, and both stepped up to the microphone to voice good wishes to the crowd.
Irish Consul General Noel Kilkenny and his wife Hanora have hosted receptions for the parade and marched in it for the last several years, and this year the Irish government sent cabinet member Ciarán Cannon. Members of the Irish Dáil, the nation’s parliament, sent a recorded message of support.
“The Ireland I live in, the Ireland I represent is changing, it’s evolving,” Cannon said. “It’s slowly becoming a place where regardless of your sexual orientation, regardless of your ethnicity, regardless of your religious beliefs, you are treated as an equal citizen.”
Panti, who stood nearly as tall as New York’s mayor in her heels and blonde bouffant wig, told the crowd, “I’ve come all the way from Dublin to be here today, unlike our previous speaker not at the request of the Irish government, but at the request of the St. Pat’s for All organizers, and I’m prouder of that. This crowd in front of me reflects the open and inclusive Ireland that I’m from and that I recognize and the one that I want to see reflected around the world.”
Panti then repaired to a red convertible and joined the dozens of groups from all the boroughs and from cities including Boston, Washington, and Dublin. Girl Scouts marched alongside Sunnyside dog owners, giant puppets, half a dozen marching bands of all ages, pipes and drums, Irish athletic associations, the Irish-American Writers Association, the Gay Officers’ Action League (GOAL) and FireFLAG/ EMS, and members of the Sirens Motorcycle Club, the so-called Dykes on Bikes who lead off the Heritage of Pride parade each June in Manhattan.
Organizers estimated that about 90 groups turned out to march, and the sidewalks along the route down Skillman Avenue were lined with locals and visitors from across the East River and beyond — many of whom appreciated the fact that the feared snowstorm caused the MTA to cancel scheduled track work, keeping the #7 train running from Manhattan.
In addition to fans waving Irish and rainbow flags, the parade, as usual, drew some protesters, who carried signs condemning gays and lesbians. One small elderly man with a downturned mouth held up a sign reading “SODOM AND GOMORRAH!” Panti called out to him, “Sodom and Gomorrah? There was a fellow with the same sign a few blocks back… Is that a common name in Queens?”
Panti was more often met with cheers and whistles, as she waved, blew kisses, and posed with people who ran out to the car for a photo. She had reprised her “Noble Call” at the Irish Arts Center concert two evenings before, getting three curtain calls from the full house, whose members swarmed her afterward.
“I’ve had thousands of emails, cards, and letters from all over the world, many from gay people, of course, but also from women, people in wheelchairs, people with Asperger’s… anybody who feels on the outside,” Panti told Michael Musto in Out magazine. “What started out as distressing and difficult in the end turned into something so positive. It’s been amazing and exhilarating and exhausting.”
Toward the end of the parade, Panti’s convertible caught up with the flatbed truck, on which a band consisting of concert producer Fleming, guitarist and singer Dave Barckow, fiddler Vonnie Quinn, and Gerry Arias on drums were playing everything from Britney Spears to Black Sabbath to classic Irish jigs and reels.
“The truck turns a corner and comes to an unexpected stop,” Fleming recalled. “We’ve run into the back of the parade. There, facing us, perched on her convertible, waving presidentially is Panti! Dave switches songs to Madonna’s ‘Material Girl.’ Vonnie pitches in with an Irish reel and Gerry never misses a beat. Panti lights up and sings along. Donna and Dana, her drivers, jump out of the car and dance in the street. The Keltic Dreams Irish dancers, Hispanic and African-American girls from the Bronx with their teacher Caroline Duggan, in their colorful Irish dancing costumes, bust out their Riverdance moves, and just when you thought the day couldn’t get any better, it does.”