A NEW ROW has broken out among Irish activists in New York over the refusal of the city’s St Patrick’s Day Parade to allow an Irish LGBT group to march this year.
Last September, organisers announced, to some fanfare, that for the first time ever the world’s largest Paddy’s Day parade would include an openly LGBT contingent.
For a moment it looked as if the Irish gay community in New York’s bitter, decades-long struggle for recognition was finally over.
As details emerged, however, it became clear this wasn’t the victory it seemed to be.
“When I heard the news, I went from total delight to major disappointment,” said Brendan Fay, a 56-year-old activist from Drogheda who moved to Queens in 1984.
The group allowed to take part in the 253-year-old march up 5th Avenue was OUT@NBC – made up of LGBT employees of NBC Universal, the event’s TV sponsor.
Not the Lavender and Green Alliance, an Irish group co-founded by Fay in 1994.
Not Irish Queers, a group that emerged in 1996, and has been challenging the parade organisers with litigation and street protests since then.
What’s more, parade organisers appear to have been pushed into the move, rather than jumping, with the Irish Voice reporting NBC had threatened to end its TV coverage of the event.
Six months on, various factions in the Irish community view the inclusion of OUT@NBC as either a mark of progress to be welcomed, a cynical ploy to keep sponsors on board, or a slap in the face to Irish LGBT groups.
The fight is turning inwards, and now it’s getting personal.
‘Cherishing all the children of the nation equally’
Brendan Fay spent almost a decade on the fringes of the 5th Avenue parade – writing letters, waving placards, picketing and getting arrested.
He took part in the infamous 1991 parade – when New York mayor David Dinkins defied organisers and joined the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organisation (ILGO) in their march down 5th Avenue.
Speaking to TheJournal.ie from his home in Astoria, Queens, his voice fills with emotion as he recounts his “first day as an out gay Irishman,” 24 years ago.
Some of the hundreds of thousands of spectators of the main parade threw beer at the group, booing and heckling, screaming “AIDS,” and hurling homophobic abuse at them, as shown in the video below.
Parades were the last thing Fay, a religious studies teacher, thought would one day dominate his life.
But as he explains, “It’s only when you emigrate that you understand the importance and the symbolism of the parade.”
“And it’s when you’re excluded from it, that you really understand.”
So on March 17 1991, Fay, dressed in a kilt, joined the African-American Mayor of New York in an Irish dancing circle afterwards, telling the New York Times he had just experienced “the best St Patrick’s Day [he] ever had.”
As liberating as it was, however, that day cost Fay dearly. Soon afterwards, he lost his job as a teacher at a private Catholic secondary school in Queens.
A practising Catholic, he had gone to St Pat’s Seminary in Maynooth, and studied theology at St John’s University in Queens.
In 1999, he was arrested twice in a week after protesting non-inclusive parades in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
After that, he took matters into his own hands.
A meeting at Donovans pub in Woodside between Fay, Irish nurse Ellen Duncan, and gay schoolteacher Danny Dromm, gave birth to the St Pats for All parade, an inclusive and racially diverse alternative to the main event.
Since 2000, it has marched through Queens every year under a banner that quotes the Proclamation of the Republic: “Cherishing all the children of the nation equally.”
Fay’s focus now is very much on the nuts and bolts of running the annual event, which is expanding in size and political support every year.
With two days to go until the event, he’s distracted, and his husband Tom, an American hematologist and oncologist whom he married in 2003, is taking phone messages and arranging call-backs.
Fay is making final arrangements for this year’s Grand Marshals – Kerry Kennedy, the human rights activist and daughter of Senator Robert Kennedy, and the actor Brian F. O’Byrne, who plays Detective Mick Moynihan (“Cig”) on Love/Hate.
But despite this focus on the event he runs along with Kathleen Walsh D’Arcy, he says he’s still “determined to do everything [he] possibly can” to get Irish LGBT inclusion in the 5th Avenue parade in two weeks’ time.
I’ve appealed to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Grand Marshal, the Mayor [Bill de Blasio], and Irish leaders in New York, to do everything they possibly can.This is New York, and good things can happen in hours and minutes. All it would take is a telephone call.
If that call doesn’t come, though, he’s ready to dust off his placards and take to the streets of Manhattan once again.
Of course – we’ll do what we’ve always done. We have to protest exclusion and discrimination.
However, that last-minute phone call is unlikely to arrive.
‘In their eyes, we can’t be Irish and queer. We can only be one or the other.’
After September’s announcement, organisers said Irish gay activists could apply to march in 2016, but that there was no room for any more participants this year.
“It’s the same kind of trickery that we’ve seen in the past,” says John Francis Mulligan from the group Irish Queers.
They used the exact same argument in 1993, when they said the parade route wasn’t long enough.
That year saw an acrimonious and high-profile court battle between New York city officials and organisers from the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) – a conservative, Catholic, male-only Irish-American group.
Despite their consistent denial that they are motivated by homophobic discrimination, a lawyer for the AOH admitted to Judge Kevin Thomas Duffy, that previous rulings about waiting lists were “an attempt to defuse the situation” and a sham.
In other words, the organisers would never allow LGBT groups to carry banners in the parade, no matter how short the waiting list, or how long the parade route.
And in 1991, after Mayor Dinkins marched with ILGO, the AOH banned Division 7 of its organisation, which happened to have overseen that inclusion.
“You have to look at the history,” says Mulligan, a 45-year-old Manhattan office-worker who went to primary school in Carrickmore, in his mother’s native Co Tyrone, but grew up in New York.
There is no change here. A change would be to say ‘We’ll only allow one Irish LGBT group to march this year, but we’ll entertain other groups next year.’
For him, it’s no accident that the first ever LGBT group allowed to march in the parade belongs to a corporate sponsor, and not the Irish community itself.
They don’t admit that there are Irish and Irish-American LGBT people. In their eyes, we can’t be Irish and queer. We can only be one or the other.
This, however, is the philosophy of a group of “provacateurs,” according to Niall O’Dowd, the influential and well-connected publisher of the Irish Voice and Irish America newspapers, and founder of the IrishCentral website.
‘The longest-running open sore in the Irish-American community’
“[Irish Queers] come out once a year to protest the parade, and they don’t ever involve themselves in the community in any meaningful way,” he tells TheJournal.ie.
In a scathing column last month, he called the inclusion of OUT@NBC a “seismic concession” and condemned Irish Queers for looking for “cheap headlines.”
In contrast to parades in Ireland, says O’Dowd, the New York event is “a Catholic parade before it’s an Irish parade. That’s what you have to understand about it.”
While he supports a fully inclusive event, and has repeatedly criticised organisers for being slow to change, O’Dowd likens progress on this issue to talks leading up to the Good Friday Agreement, in which he played a role.
Very few people get exactly what they want right at the beginning of negotiations. But what you learn to do is win the small victories. You put your head down and you battle on.
This is the longest-running open sore in the Irish-American community. A huge effort has been made, and a solution has been found, though it’s not the ultimate solution.
O’Dowd, who who is the brother of Fine Gael TD Fergus O’Dowd, says the inclusion of a gay group this year means organisers have “conceded the key principle.”
The Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, has agreed to be Grand Marshal, despite what he called “much fiery mail and public criticism” from the other side of this debate.
In his recent column, O’Dowd called this a “huge gesture of conciliation.”
He singled out Brendan Fay’s Lavender and Green Alliance as “the only gay Irish group with real standing,” while castigating Irish Queers as a “fit for purpose, once a year serial boycotter of the parade.”
Fay himself calls this appraisal “appalling.”
I was shocked to read his column. From the first moment, this has always been about being Irish and LGBT. It was never simply about being gay. It was about reclaiming our heritage.
I don’t believe in put-downs and division, and driving a wedge between people who share a common longing.
To his credit, Niall O’Dowd has used his paper to do a lot of good, but he has this one wrong.
In an equally scathing response on their website, Irish Queers defended the group against the publisher’s attack:
When O’Dowd says Irish Queers don’t have standing, he means we don’t have standing with him, and with the entwined business, political, and religious power brokers who run official Irish politics.
He also means that the Irish community in New York is a tiny, closed circle of people who can be brought in or pushed out – and not the expansive, bustling community of New Yorkers who share in different aspects of Irish culture, different relationships with Ireland, and wildly different politics.
Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Mulligan adds: “I think [O'Dowd] sometimes walks around and expects to be genuflected to, like a 1950s parish priest, because of who he is.”
While these decades-old differences and factions threaten to mar the movement towards inclusion, at a crucial moment, there is at least one thing everyone agrees on:
This wouldn’t be an issue in Ireland itself.
“They have this romanticised version of what Ireland is, and that’s what they’re trying to replicate here in New York,” says Mulligan of the older, more conservative opponents of inclusion in the parade.
“And that doesn’t exist in Ireland now, and it doesn’t exist in New York now either.”
Brendan Fay says he’s “so heartened” by the upcoming marriage equality referendum here, but was “disappointed” by Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan’s decision to march in the 5th Avenue parade on March 17th.
That decision contrasts with the ever-expanding group of major political figures in New York, who are boycotting the 5th Avenue parade, and increasingly attending St Pat’s for All.
Last year, Democrat Bill deBlasio became the first Mayor in a generation to refuse to attend the Manhattan parade, and despite the inclusion of OUT@NBC, appears intent on staying away again in 2015.
He joins major New York power-brokers like Christine Quinn, the openly lesbian Council member who was arrested with Brendan Fay in 1999 and ran for mayor in 2013.
That’s as well as Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Council members including Jimmy Van Bramer, Rosie Mendez and of course, Danny Dromm, who helped found St Pat’s for All, and is now a City Council member.
The tide is turning, but after 25 years of arrests, protests, court battles, and now with internal factions bubbling over, Brendan Fay puts things in perspective.
I remember in 1992, when I got a message on an old fax machine, to say that a lesbian and gay youth group had won the prize for best float in the St Patrick’s Day parade that year in Cork.
And here we still are in 2015.
First posted at 8.30pm Saturday.