Moments before OUT@NBCUniversal, an LGBT employee group, stepped onto Fifth Avenue in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Craig Robinson, NBCUniversal’s chief diversity officer, responded cautiously when asked to predict how the crowd would react.
“I don’t know,” Robinson said. “Anytime you are the first anything, you have to wait and see.”
Robinson need not have been so cautious. As the contingent marched from 48th Street to 79th Street behind a green banner that read “NBCUniversal” and “The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Straight Ally Employee Alliance,” when the crowd, which had thinned substantially since the parade’s start roughly four-and-a-half hours earlier, had any reaction, it was uniformly supportive.
As they entered the 50s, a man on the east side of Fifth Avenue began an exuberant chant of “Equal rights, equal rights” as a woman next to him yelled “Bravo.” A few blocks later, a group of women behind a banner that read “Half Mad McLaughlins” cheered as OUT@NBCUniversal went by. Told it was the first LGBT group to march in the parade since 1991, they responded with “We know, we know.” The contingent of about 60 people, all wearing green sashes that read “OUT@NBCUniversal,” even received waves and polite smiles from a crew of Catholic clergymen who were greeting marchers outside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
At 11 a.m., when the march began, the crowd was four and five people deep along Fifth Avenue. By the time OUT@NBCUniversal stepped off at roughly 3:30, some blocks had a handful of viewers. In blocks above 57th Street, the Central Park side of Fifth Avenue was often entirely empty. Still, the reaction was strikingly different from 1991, the one and only time prior to this year’s parade when an LGBT group marched.
Then, Mayor David Dinkins invited the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization to march with him, though without their banner. The move infuriated John Cardinal O’Connor, then the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York and a leading anti-LGBT voice. O’Connor’s greeting of Dinkins in 1991 was cursory and cold. The crowd heaped insults on Dinkins and the marchers, leading one mayoral aide that year to call the march “two miles of hate.” Dinkins compared it to the treatment given to civil rights marchers in Southern cities in the 1960s. LGBT groups were banned after 1991 and the annual protests over the ban have meant that every parade since then has been marked by controversy. Many elected officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, have heeded the call to boycott the parade.
When this year’s contingent reached the 60s, Frank Comerford, the chief revenue officer for NBCUniversal’s local TV stations, said, “I don’t know,” when asked what the fuss was over an LGBT group marching in the parade. “The response has been nothing but positive since we started.”
Comerford is also a parade director for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. He urged OUT@NBCUniversal to apply for a slot last year. The application was submitted and approved in three weeks’ time in September. WNBC, the local TV station that broadcasts the parade, is owned and operated by NBCUniversal.
Controversy over gay exclusion moved Guinness, a beer brand owned by Diageo, and Heineken beer to pull out as sponsors last year. Guinness and Heineken returned as sponsors this year.
As the OUT@NBCUniversal group was gathering on 48th Street prior to marching, David Foster, a senior producer at MSNBC, greeted Comerford saying, “I’ve got to give you a hug. Thank you for everything.” Robinson portrayed OUT@NBCUniversal participation in the parade as the same as any other group’s participation.
“It wasn’t a negotiation,” he said. “We were not part of the selection process.”
But if there was little controversy on Fifth Avenue this year, there was between the Irish LGBT groups that have been battling since 1991 to get into the parade and OUT@NBCUniversal. A major issue is that the demand to parade organizers was never that any LGBT group be admitted, but that an Irish LGBT group be allowed to participate.
The move this year was seen as economic and intended to protect NBCUniversal’s commitment to the parade and its organizers. Having OUT@NBCUniversal in the parade allowed both parties to claim that the ban was over and an LGBT group was in the parade. This, in turn, allowed sponsors to return.
“All these guys care about is money,” said Emmaia Gelman, a member of Irish Queers, of the parade organizers. “Now that they’re all back in, I don’t know what we’re negotiating about.”
Gelman was one of roughly 50 people who protested the continued exclusion of Irish LGBT groups from the parade. Starting at 11 and continuing for two-and-a-half hours, activists chanted and displayed a green banner that read “Let Irish Gays Into Irish Parade.”
The group had planned on remaining silent when OUT@NBCUniversal went by, but they ultimately decided against waiting nearly five hours for that moment.
City Councilmember Daniel Dromm, an out gay Democrat who represents part of Queens, was on hand for the protest and he saw a crack in the 24-year ban. Conversations with some parade organizers have led him to believe that an Irish LGBT group may march in 2016.
“I’ve had conversations with some on the organizing committee who understand the issue,” Dromm said. “I’m cautiously optimistic that an Irish gay group will be in this parade next year.”