The group of about 100 who marched with the Lavender and Green Alliance in the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 17 – the second year in which an openly LGBTQ Irish group was allowed to participate – were all about the business of turning an inaugural opportunity into an annual tradition.
As OutVets in Boston found out this year, it is possible to lose what’s already been gained. The veterans’ group was initially denied entry into Beantown’s parade, in which it had marched since 2015, due to a “late application” and for having a rainbow logo on its uniform jackets. Public outcry and politicians dropping out of the parade (including Massachusetts’ Republican governor and Boston’s Democratic mayor) not only got the group restored, but OutVets led the parade and were declared a permanent participant.
“Let me say that it’s quite a sea change from the early ‘90s when we were having abuse and catcalls and beer thrown at us, and subject to arrest,” said Tarlach MacNiallais, the longtime member and supporter of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization (ILGO) and the St. Pat’s for All inclusive parade in Sunnyside, Queens. MacNiallais, who referred not only to years of protests but the humiliation heaped on Mayor David Dinkins when he once allowed the LGBTQ group to march with him, is now on the formation committee of the Fifth Avenue parade and marched with his husband, Juan Nepomuceno.
“I’m here because I can be,” said former State Senator Thomas Duane. “I thought there might be a falloff this year, especially because some LGBTQ undocumented stayed away. You never know when ICE is going to show up.”
Duane, who marshaled the marriage equality bill through the Senate until its enactment in 2011, added, “I am also here because of an adage I always tell people, old or young: never give up the franchise. It’s always possible to lose civil rights and equal protection. Being out and proud is the greatest tool we have. It may not seem as brave as in the old days, but it was, is, and always will be. For every person here, maybe there are 10 who are a little afraid to come.”
Out gay City Councilmember Daniel Dromm of Jackson Heights marched the parade route once with Mayor Bill de Blasio, but returned for the afternoon step-off of Lavender and Green.
“This year, the parade’s selection of its grand marshal, Michael Dowling, delivered a message of inclusion and hope that extends to the LGBT community,” Dromm said of the healthcare executive who decades ago was a top aide Governor Mario Cuomo. “After insisting on [LGBTQ inclusion] for 20 to 25 years, and working on it with Brendan, coming from ILGO, I am going to keep coming back. Being Irish is an important part of my own identity.”
Brendan Fay, the founder of ILGO and co-chair of the inclusive St. Pat’s for All parade in Queens, wasn’t present for the march. Instead, he was in Drogheda, Ireland, where he served as grand marshal of his hometown parade.
St. Pat’s For All co-chair, Kathleen Walsh D’Arcy, was on Fifth Avenue, as she said, “marching joyfully, because we worked so hard for this. So many people paid a very high price for this. I will be here every year.”
Along with Dromm, Duane, and Walsh D’Arcy, the Lavender and Green group included marriage equality pioneer Edie Windsor and her spouse Judith Kasen, and New York State Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon.
They were joined by Irish Labour Party Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, in town to appear at the Irish Stand, an evening of “multi-cultural prose, speech, song, and wit” celebrating inclusivity, diversity, and human rights at the Riverside Church, in a benefit for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Ó Ríordáin, who in a passionate speech to the Irish Senate in November declared, “America has just elected a fascist,” has broad government responsibilities for new communities, culture, equality, and drugs strategy.
“I was here last year,” he said. “We marched with Bill de Blasio, and it was fantastic. I’ve been following this struggle for many years. For there to be a row over here seemed bizarre.”
LGBTQ groups have marched in Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Day parade for years.
Each group in the Fifth Avenue parade gets to name its own grand marshal, and Lavender and Green chose prolific Irish writer, actor, and activist Malachy McCourt. At 85, McCourt gets around these days with a walker and a wheelchair – and rode in a horse-drawn carriage at the March 4 Sunnyside St. Pat’s for All parade – but remains busy, promoting his forthcoming book “Death Need Not Be Fatal.”
“Well this is an astonishing development,” McCourt said. “When you’ve come out of an Irish slum and all of a sudden you’re a grand marshal, you’ve got to come to the conclusion that you’ve outlived your enemies. As Oscar Wilde said: ‘Always forgive your enemies. Nothing annoys them so much.’ I think I’m near to the end of forgiving Ireland. It’s gotten very progressive as a state.”
While marchers are not supposed to carry posters or banners, no one objected to the man who walked with a large photo of Father Mychal Judge, the out gay FDNY chaplain who died on 9/11. Irish musician Brian Fleming brought his bodhrán and drummed the marchers along, with the assistance of Dylan James, a young New York banjo player.
The crowds were thinner in some places along the parade route by the time Lavender and Green stepped off late in the day, but many remained on the sidewalks on either side of Fifth Avenue – mostly cleared of the slush and ice from the week’s late winter snowstorm – from 48th to 78th Streets. The Lavender and Green group was greeted throughout with cheers and applause. Some shouted: “You are welcome here!”
Only one protester was seen along the route, holding up anti-gay signs.
As the parade progressed up Fifth Avenue, priests from St. Patrick’s Cathedral came out to personally greet the members of all the groups, including the LGBTQ contingent. As they approached Trump Tower, marchers were told not to shout or chant anything in front of the anti-immigrant president’s corporate headquarters and home.
MacNiallais talked about the changes he has seen since he began his activism that led to breakthroughs in parades like New York’s.
“They reached out to me and asked if would I be interested in volunteering on the formation committee to help organize the parade,” he said. “I think it says a lot about the spirit of inclusiveness that exists now. When you get to know people on a personal level, it’s less about, as we say in Belfast, ‘us’ns and them’ns.’ Getting to know each other on that level creates a more profound type of reconciliation.”
MacNiallais later commented, “Some people would say our acceptance into the parade was purely as a result of the pressure and boycott, and while that has a lot to do with it, I don’t think it tells the whole story. I think there’s been a general shift in social attitudes toward LGBTQ people and that is exemplified by the new parade committee. Not only has the parade permitted Lavender and Green to march, they’ve gone out of their way to reach out to us. Dr. John Lahey [Quinnipiac University president and vice chair of the parade committee] marched behind our banner, and members of the committee have come out to our St. Pat’s for All parade and concert. It wasn’t a begrudging thing.”
“We all want to celebrate Irish heritage and culture, and we’re all part of the same community in the end.”