Some asked Brendan Fay and Kathleen Walsh D’Arcy, the co-chairs of the inclusive St. Pat’s for All Parade in Queens whether they’d stop marching in Sunnyside after last year’s decision to let an openly LGBT Irish group march in the Fifth Avenue St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Their answer was a resounding “no!” and the 18th annual parade stepped off from Skillman Avenue on March 4, with the largest number of participants in its history and an unofficial theme of “resist.”
This year’s grand marshals were iconic TV talk show host Phil Donahue and disability activist Anastasia Somoza.
“St. Pats for All 2017 is cultural space for hope and hospitality in a time of stress and fear and prejudice,” said Fay, who started the parade in 1999. “Early in the morning I went from checking the delivery of the portable toilets and stage setup to singing ballads with Malachy McCourt, Edie Windsor, and Phil Donahue.”
The parade climaxed a weekend of celebrating Irish and Irish-American heritage. Many attendees were also at the previous Friday night’s annual fundraising concert at the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan.
Brisk weather on Sunday kept the proceedings moving.
Before the parade, as speakers and officials gathered at Claret Wine Bar (where Donahue and Windsor joined McCourt for a rousing rendition of “Danny Boy”), out gay Jackson Heights City Councilmember Daniel Dromm reminisced about his longtime association with the parade and with the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, or ILGO, which in 1990 launched the effort to open up Manhattan’s parade to LGBTQ participation.
“I love being at this parade,” Dromm said. “Last year, we took a trip to Ireland and met with members of the Irish community, and I see this parade as being an intersection of all these cultural and progressive movements here and in Ireland that have made great changes and educated people. With the president we have, I don’t think he understands that.”
Dromm was accompanied by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a long-time regular at the parade even before she was in public office, who remarked, “It’s a great symbol of inclusion: something wonderful that came out of being excluded. And a great reminder for the climate we find ourselves in now.”
The subtext – and text – of much of the parade reflected a protest against anti-immigrant discrimination in a borough where some 40 percent of the inhabitants were born in another country as well as an outcry against the rise of hate crimes and hate speech.
“I think that the lesbian and gay leadership represent what are fundamental values of identity, inclusion, and equality that must be practiced everywhere, all the time,” said Barbara Jones, consul general of Ireland in the United States. Jones brokered the agreement last year between the Lavender & Green Alliance and the Fifth Avenue parade, which allowed the LGBTQ group and its allies to march in Manhattan.
“I believe that St. Pat’s for All values these important qualities,” she continued. “Regardless of the political climate, there’s the soul of society we must think of.”
Somoza, who in the first St. Pat’s for All Parade – pushed in her wheelchair by Hillary Clinton, who volunteered for the job when Somoza’s motorized wheelchair was broken – said that in her years with the parade, “I’ve noticed how much more support and involvement we’re getting from the grassroots up. That’s the best kind of change. This parade was an important step. If it weren’t for St. Pat’s for All, we might not have been able to march on Fifth Avenue.”
Somoza, the daughter of Irish and Nicaraguan immigrants and a native New Yorker who spoke eloquently on the rights of disabled people at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, said that she sees a “larger resistance movement that’s now forming and pushing back. And that’s part of the message we are sending today.”
Donahue said he was initially contacted to join the parade by a fellow member of the Notre Dame/ St. Mary’s Alumni/ae Association, which also marched in the parade.
Donahue, who hosted one of the first television shows to welcome openly lesbian and gay guests starting in the early 1970s, said that his Church still has “a lot to atone for. It promotes homophobia and makes it easier for homophobes to beat ‘em up. Homophobia can be lethal, and the concept of ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ is condescending.”
He added, “I’m encouraged by [Pope] Francis saying, ‘Who am I to judge?’ It took a lot of moral courage to do that, but it also took long enough to get there.”
Fay welcomed many friends of the parade to say a few words. In addition to Dromm, Mark-Viverito, and Jones, pre-parade speakers included out gay Council Majority Leader Jimmy van Bramer, who represents Sunnyside and Long Island City. Other councilmembers on hand to march included Chelsea’s out gay Corey Johnson and Sunset Park’s out gay Carlos Menchaca, Astoria’s Costas Constantinides, and Eastern Queens’ Rory Lancman.
Other elected officials who spoke included Public Advocate Letitia James, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, New York State Controller Thomas Di Napoli, and Astoria State Senator Michael Gianaris. The de Blasio administration’s LGBT and Queens liaisons, Matthew McMorrow and Nick Gulotta, respectively, spoke on the mayor’s behalf.
New York City Controller Scott Stringer got the crowd cheering when he talked about using the New York City pension funds’ $170 billion in assets to pressure states that discriminate against LGBTQ people to change the way they treat their citizens or risk losing New York’s business. He drew a roar when he spoke sharply about “this lunatic in the White House!”
The crowd heard more strong speeches from Amir Ashour, executive director of IraQueer, who spoke movingly about growing up gay in Iraq, Edie Windsor, who battled the Defense of Marriage Act to its demise at the Supreme Court, former State Senator Thomas Duane, Shekar Krishnan, a South Asian activist who leads the New Visions Democratic Club of Jackson Heights, and Augusto Cabrera, Peru’s deputy consul general in the US.
With Gilbert Baker, designer of the Rainbow Flag, carrying the Irish tri-color, the FDNY Emerald Society Pipes and Drum Band stepped off to begin the parade fairly close to its scheduled 2 p.m. start. They were greeted by crowds lining the sidewalks, many with babes in arms, many more with small dogs, often in costume, in arms.
As “Saturday Night Live”’s Stefon might have said, this parade has everything! Stiltwalkers, Gaelic sports teams, dogs in costumes, an LGBTQ marching band, a mariachi band, carriage horses, fire trucks, CrossFit practitioners, and a guy selling soft pretzels from a shopping cart.
Groups large and small paraded through Sunnyside and Woodside, from Ireland (County Laois), from adjacent neighborhoods, from surrounding boroughs and states. Windsor and her spouse, Judith Kasen, carried the banner for the Lesbian & Gay Big Apple Corps, whose musicians were resplendent in sharp uniforms with purple feathers in their hats.
Musician and playwright Brian Fleming, who comes to Queens from Ireland each year to coordinate the concert as well as the music in the parade, led the “St Pat’s for All Stars,” made up of Jerry Arias, Louise Barry, Dave Barckow, and Alice Smyth, as they rode on a flatbed truck.
At the parade’s conclusion, crowds lingered, particularly around the bands, and dozens joined in songs from the mariachi band from East Elmhurst’s Academia De Mariachi Nuevo Amanecer, then moved on to applaud crowd favorite the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, and perhaps followed the County Cork Pipe Band playing all the way into Donovan’s Pub.
The parade has always had its anti-gay protesters, and 2017 was no exception. One protester was flanked by a man holding up an even larger sign that read “DON’T READ THESE SIGNS!” And in a second-floor apartment near Roosevelt Avenue, where someone always posts a series of anti-gay posters in the window, there was a new one this year in the apartment next door: “LOVE IS LOVE.”
“That was diverse with a capital D,” co-chair Kathleen Walsh D’Arcy said of St. Pat’s for All. “And the largest parade we’ve ever had. My parents came over here on a boat in the ‘20s, and we’ve welcomed immigrants here ever since. If we stand together, if we get our strength from each other, then we don’t have anything to fear.”