Marching to a Different Drum

Irish Lesbians, Gays, and Straights Mix Pride and Protest

Peace may come to Northern Ireland before it is achieved in Irish parade politics in New York. The Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization is escalating its protest plans to mark its tenth exclusion from the big Manhattan St. Patrick's Day Parade on March 17 . The Brooklyn and Bronx parade committees will continue to keep out gay groups. But the 'Voice'has learned that Queens may be the venue for the coming together of gay and straight Irish for a parade—a first for New York City. Where politicians choose to step out will define them for voters on both sides of this fault line.

"We want to have the largest protest ever," said Anne Maguire, cofounder of ILGO. They are seeking commitments from 2000 people to risk arrest with them on Fifth Avenue for St. Patrick's Day 2000.

Mayor Giuliani has taken to gloating as the number of those arrested with ILGO has dwindled. When asked if he supports ILGO's inclusion, he takes the line of parade organizers that they can march as individuals—but not with their banner. He cites the U.S. Supreme Court decision giving organizers the right to exclude who they want. But most major Democrats, including Senator Charles Schumer, Public Advocate Mark Green, Comptroller Alan Hevesi, and Bronx beep Fernando Ferrer, boycott it because they oppose antigay discrimination even if it's legal. Speaker Vallone marches and says that ILGO can join him without their banner.

The India Day and Pulaksi Day parades also exclude gay contingents, while the Puerto Rican Day and African American Day parades have welcomed gay groups for years. "We're part of the [St. Patrick's Day parade] tradition every year," said Maguire. "We might as well be part of the parade." In an attempt to start a dialogue, she wrote as much in September to the St. Patrick's Day Parade Committee, a group composed of members the Ancient Order of Hibernians, that dominates parade politics. There has been no reply.

Cardinal John O'Connor will be 80 on January 15 and may retire before greeting another parade as archbishop. He will not say whether he would mediate this conflict. He was made grand marshal several years ago in a move seen as a reward for keeping ILGO sidelined by insisting the parade is a Catholic event that would be compromised by a gay presence. But his spokesperson, Joe Zwilling, said that "the archdiocesedoes not get involved with who does and does not march."

ILGO is also raising the stakes this year by petitioning politicians in Ireland to support their inclusion. "The Parliamentary Labour Party has signed on to it," Maguire said, and they're trying for the ruling Fianna Fail party. The group is also going after sponsors like Ford and Aer Lingus. She said that a planeload of gay activists from Ireland "are going to fly Virgin Atlantic" to the New York protest.

Emmaia Gelman, 25, an ILGO veteran who has worked in "the queer community in Northern Ireland," said that the power of conservatives who run the parade to control Irish American identity is "diminishing because it is based on memories of an Ireland that no longer exists." She said that in Belfast, "the people who took on the methods and ideology of ILGO are now in the vanguard" of the gay movement, founding a community center and "making sure that the institutions created by the peace process include queers."

Because they cannot march in the parade, ILGO wants the right to protest on Fifth Avenue. The city's police department has refused them a permit for years. ILGO's challenge to a 1996 federal court ruling against them will be heard in January on orders from the Second Circuit. Steve Rawlings, ILGO's attorney, is confident, contending that the denials of their permit applications were "unconstitutional violations of free speech."

Gay groups do march in the Seattle, San Francisco, and Cambridge parades—not to mention parades in Dublin, Cork, and Galway in Ireland.

While most of the media attention is on the Manhattan parade, another Irish gay group, the Lavender and Green Alliance, led by Brendan Fay, has been struggling for inclusion in the borough parades. When they were kept out of the Brooklyn parade last year, eight of their members were arrested. They had a deal to march in the first Bronx parade in 1998, but it fell apart due to pressure from the AOH and Knights of Columbus, Fay said.

But the Lavender and Green Alliance may finally be able to celebrate their Irish heritage on a city street without facing jail. A Queens St. Patrick's Day Parade and Irish Fair committee, cochaired by Fay, is planning a Sunnyside-to-Woodside parade for March 5 that is open to all Irish groups. Councilmember Walter McCaffrey said that he and his colleague John Sabini are supporting it.

American Irish writer Malachy McCourt, author of A Monk Swimming, said that while he is not a fan of the parades here ("It makes me puke!" he said. "Green is the color of decomposition!"), he does endorse the Queens event. "I think it's lovely," he said, "and if in doubt, do the right thing."

 
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