Know your history!

This summary was last updated in March 2014. For updated history that also adds background information, see these:
Mayor must contend with St. Patrick's Parade legacies (City Limits 3/2/15)
Un-burying Irish queer lives (Irish Echo 11/19/14)

The first NYC St. Patrick’s Day parade, in 1762, was organized by Irish Protestants as a public protest to fight widespread discrimination against Irish people.

Irish queers first started coming out as a movement in the 1980s, when writer Joni Crone stunned Ireland by outing herself on the Late Late Show.

The Irish Lesbian & Gay Organization was started in 1990 by a group of queer Irish immigrants in New York. A few friends placed an ad in an Irish American newspaper, trying to find Irish queer community in a way that hadn’t been available in closeted Ireland. They started meeting, breaking down their isolation and silence as Irish queers, and soon had the idea of coming out in the most public Irish American venue there is: the St. Patrick’s Day parade…

The queer scene in Ireland itself has changed dramatically since then – queers are recognized and protected by the government (in some ways), and there’s a thriving social scene. Over the last decade, many Irish queers who emigrated to the US in order to live openly as queers, have moved back to Ireland.

Since 1991, the Ancient Order of Hibernians – an all-male organization of practicing Catholics, who hold the parade in trust for the Irish community – have refused Irish LGBT groups entry into the St. Patrick’s parade. At first, the AOH tried to cloak their homophobia in bureaucracy, claiming that ILGO was “on a waiting list” and that when the time came, Irish queers would march like any other group. In the course of several lawsuits, though, the AOH admitted that the waiting list was just a ruse, and that queers would never march in “their” parade.

In that first year, a division of the AOH invited ILGO to join their contingent in the parade as guests. Mayor Dinkins joined the contingent. Spectators and other marchers showered ILGO, Mayor Dinkins and AOH Division 7 with abuse and garbage. Mayor Dinkins compared the experience to walking in civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama. The following year, Division 7 were physically ejected from the parade.

In fighting our attempt to take part to take part in the Irish community’s single largest event, the AOH has tossed away over 2 centuries of tradition, and corrupted its purpose. In opposing ILGO, an AOH lawyer proudly proclaimed in court that the AOH is “as good as the Klan.” The parade is no longer the well-known public celebration of Irish pride in our shared history and culture.

Instead, the AOH has redefined the St. Patrick’s parade as a demonstration of homophobia. In 1993, an AOH lawyer told Judge Duffy that the parade’s “message is one of exclusion,” and AOH representatives told a NY Times reporter that the parade would be “a celebration of the victory of Catholic values over homosexuals.”

The AOH are hardly on the cutting edge of liberation. The parade has also historically excluded people of color, women and people in wheelchairs -- until resistance forced the AOH to change those policies. In the early 1980s, Irish people protesting the British government’s policy of criminalizing political protesters in Ireland were attacked and forcibly removed from the parade. In 1991, the AOH physically ejected supporters of political prisoner Joe Doherty for wearing sashes from the campaign to free him. Members of the Bloody Sunday campaign (attempting to draw attention to the 13 unarmed civilians killed at a civil rights protest in Northern Ireland) were banned from participating. Activists opposing the imprisonment of an activist’s daughter were thrown out for handing out roses, (in remembrance of her name, Roisín) to parade participants.

The City of New York has also broadly supported the parade's homophobia. Although most NYC elected officials individually honor the boycott that Dinkins initiated, Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg enthusiastically joined the parade -- as did their NYPD, FDNY and other City agencies. Early on, that was no surprise -- the NYPD didn't officially end its policy of homophobia until a 1996 lawsuit forced its hand (even though the City passed anti-discrimination laws in 199). NYPD and FDNY marchers in the parade were among the most hostile and threatening to LGBTQ protesters on the sidelines. Police were particularly vicious toward protesters who did civil disobedience at the parade, leading to several lawsuits agains the NYPD (which the City settled.)

The massive participation of the NYPD and FDNY has continued each year, in spite of the City's claims to be redressing homophobia. (And in 2010, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly marched as the Grand Marshal.) Each year, the NYPD and FDNY refuse to answer the LGBTQ community's objections, requests for meetings, and calls to oppose the discrimination celebrated at the parade. Each year, the parade is made up of more of uniformed NYPD and FDNY marchers than any other group.

In 2014, the City made real progress: the Mayor boycotted along with most other elected officials, and the City Council has made its boycott official for the first time. But NYPD Commissioner Bratton -- an unfortunate return from the Giuliani administration -- still flatly refuses to address the LGBTQ community. Even as the government parties of Ireland jointly, loudly condemn the bigotry, and affirm that the parade is no reflection of Ireland or its culture -- and even as the parade organizers affirm that the parade is Catholic, not particuarly Irish -- Commissioner Bratton trots out the old excuse that he supports the parade for Irish reasons, and that the homophobia is not worth addressing.

There are no new stories, only ongoing struggles. Irish queers continue in a long line of fighting for civil rights, justice and equality, and we will continue until we defeat the religious right attempt to hijack our communities and control our identities. The St. Patrick’s Day parade – the most public expression of the Irish community in America – is the right place exactly to stage our struggle.