The St Patrick's day parade in Dublin, Ireland is a gay-friendly event, unlike its New York city counterpart. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA
guardian.co.uk, Friday 16 March 2012 11.22 EDT Article history
As an Irish person, it's an event I say I like a little less every year. But with a sort of playful resignation: it's the St Patrick's Day parade again, is it?
I suppose I'd better complain about leprechaun hats and jarring racial stereotypes, but eventually, wear some sort of green thing and drink too much beer, in spite of myself. Admittedly, the celebration in Dublin can be a lot of fun, even if it is an unabashed kitsch-fest. This year, I actually had even higher hopes, because I recently moved to New York – home of the world's largest St Patrick's parade. Surely, it would be better here, I thought: the Fifth Avenue march could only be exciting.
I was wrong. It's not the green outfits, it really isn't, and it's not the promotional websites that look like they were somehow designed in 1950. No, as a gay person, my negative attitude stems from something completely different: its organizers ban me, and other gay people, from openly participating. In one of the most diverse cities on earth, gay groups and individuals, Irish or otherwise, cannot march under their own banners at the Fifth Avenue St Patrick's Day Parade.
Why? And indeed, how? Put simply, its organizers say the parade is a religious procession, and it is technically a private event. For many years, the Catholic group Ancient Order of Hibernians sponsored the parade. It strictly enforced a gay ban, asserting its legal right to do so based on a unanimous 1995 US supreme court decision over a similar ban in Boston – a ruling that said sponsors of a parade can exclude whomever they like. And while the Ancient Order has now stepped back from direct parade organization, some on the current voluntary committee are still Order members. The ban stands.
This is nothing new for gay Irish Americans. The parade was the front line for the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization – a now-defunct lobby group asserting its right to march – in the 1990s. In 1993, many of its members were arrested while protesting the parade, while others later set up an alternative event, St Pat's for All, in Queens. The ILGO's present-day equivalent, Irish Queers, continues to protest.
Many in the gay community see it as an ongoing fight to define Irishness. As Brendan Fay, co-founder of the Queens parade, says of the Fifth Avenue parade organizers, "They think if you're gay, you can't be Irish, and you must be anti-Catholic".
Today, the Fifth Avenue committee operates a sort of "don't ask, don't tell" policy. It insists that gay people are allowed to march – so long as they don't advertise their sexuality. To me, this attitude is outmoded, misrepresents modern Ireland, and as a Dubliner, is not something I recognize.
What this committee might be ignoring is a simple fact about modern Ireland: It's okay with gay stuff. Recent surveys have shown that a significant majority of Irish people approve of gay marriage, with a 2012 poll showing that 73% approve of gay marriage being allowed in the country's constitution. Civil unions have been legal in Ireland since 2010, and received all-party support. And, notably, the Dublin St Patrick's Day parade has regularly included gay-themed floats.
In 2010, our former president even refused an invitation to be grand marshal on the grounds that the New York parade excludes gay groups; and our current foreign minister has responded to the ban by saying that "exclusion is not an Irish thing."
For my money, I won't be heading down to Fifth Avenue this year. Give me the embarrassing tackiness of the Dublin celebrations, any day. The New York City parade is celebrating an Ireland that no longer exists.