New York City has been the scene of a St. Patrick's Day parade or procession since 1762. Sometimes there have been as many as three on the same day due to splits within the Irish community.
The most prominent split in recent years began in 1991, when the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization first applied to march in the Fifth Avenue St. Patrick's Day Parade run by the Ancient Order of Hibernians. They were put on a waiting list, supposedly because the city limited the length of the parade. When Mayor David Dinkins offered to let the parade run longer to include all on the waiting list, the Hibernians refused the gay group's application. Their argument, eventually made in court, was that the parade is a Roman Catholic celebration and that homosexuality violates Catholic teaching. After some furious negotiations, the more liberal Division 7 of the Hibernians agreed to play host to the gay group within their contingent. Though the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization was not allowed to carry their banner, they were joined by the mayor, who usually marched at the front of the parade. They were cheered along the parade route but mostly jeered. A beer can was launched at Mr. Dinkins head and he wrote in a New York Times op-ed that it reminded him of marching through Birmingham, Alabama on a civil rights protest.
The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that parades are protected by the First Amendment and can include whomever they wish. In 1998, the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization lost a federal suit against Mayor Rudy Giuliani over the right to demonstrate up Fifth Avenue prior to the parade. The court said that the police department's contention that such a demonstration was a threat to public safety was not unreasonable. So the cops have to handle the arrest of scores of protestors trying to march instead.
The Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization is still excluded from the Manhattan St. Patrick's Day march. Parades in the Bronx, Staten Island, and Brooklyn also keep Irish gay groups out. But a St. Patrick's Parade and Irish Fair was started in Queens in 2000 that welcomes all comers. This year, it will be held on March 3.
At one time, a politician's place in a St. Patrick's Day parade was an indication of his or her status in the Irish community. Now, given the gay boycott of parades that exclude gay contingents, a politician is judged by whether or not he or she marches at all.
As mayor, David Dinkins stayed out of the parade after his 1991 experience. But in 1993, his police commissioner, Ray Kelly, ordered the arrest of over 230 demonstrators supporting the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization on St. Patrick's Day.
There was a time prior to his mayoralty that Rudy Giuliani himself stayed away from the Manhattan parade because of its anti-gay policy. But as mayor, he proudly marched up Fifth Avenue with the Hibernians, often going over the route several times.
Candidate Mike Bloomberg boycotted the Manhattan parade in 2001, but plans to march this year. His spokesman, Ed Skyler, told the Daily News that "the mayor believes the best way to change an organization is from within," which raises the question why Bloomberg resigned from discriminatory private clubs just before running for mayor.
Councilmember Christine Quinn, an out lesbian who has been arrested supporting the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, said, "If the mayor actually analyzed the history of the struggle, he would see that his decision is wrong. Many people have tried to work with the Ancient Order of Hibernians from within and it has been proven that it doesn't work. Well-respected Hibernians have tried and couldn't. No reason to believe this mayor can."
New York's US Senators are split. Chuck Schumer boycotts exclusionary parades. Candidate Hillary Clinton marched in both the inclusive and the exclusive St. Patrick's Day parades in 2000 and found a reason to be out of town last year on March 17.
Gov. George Pataki marches in the Fifth Avenue parade. State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, who wants Pataki's job, hasn't marched in a St. Patrick's Day parade up until now ("I haven't been invited," he told Gotham Gazette), but said, "I haven't made up my mind," about this year's parade.
Aine Duggan, a spokesperson for the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, said that hers is a "hopeful" group, but they do not even communicate with the Ancient Order of Hibernians. "We understand Bloomberg's interest in marching because we share it," she said. "But we will only march in it if it is inclusive. If they discriminate we would ask him not to march. We need to give them the motivation to work with us." Her group is asking sponsors to withdraw from the parade and is forming a coalition with Razem, a Polish gay group that is excluded from October's Pulaski Day Parade.
The Manhattan and Queens parades are both dedicated this year to the fallen heroes of September 11th. The Fifth Avenue parade, on Saturday March 16 this year, has as its grand marshal Catholic Cardinal Edward Egan, an opponent of civil rights protections for gay people. The Queens parade is highlighting the life of Father Mychal Judge, the fire chaplain who died at the Trade Center, who was a gay man who supported gay and AIDS causes. Brendan Fay, a lead organizer of the Queens event, said that a contingent of fire fighters from Drogheda outside of Dublin is coming over for his parade. While he is disappointed with Bloomberg's plans to march on Fifth Avenue, they welcome the Mayor's participation in the Queens event.
The Fifth Avenue parade has had its share of internal controversy this year. Its president, William Flynn, a former grand marshal, resigned in frustration in August over resistance to his attempts to bring order to the group's fiscal dealings. He also favored resolving the dispute with the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization. State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's office is conducting an investigation of the parade committee.
Detention of Demonstrators Reversed
The Giuliani administration had a policy in recent years of detaining anyone arrested in a demonstration for at least 24 hours. A lawsuit from private civil rights attorney Jonathan Moore, joined by the New York Civil Liberties Union, led to the reversal of that policy. Moore says that those unreasonably detained within the last three years can sue and expect a settlement.
City Bar Association Report on City Human Rights Commission
The Bar Association of the City of New York issued a scathing report in December chronicling the decline of the City Commission on Human Rights over the last ten years and making recommendations on how to breath some life into it. The report can be read on the Bar Association's website.
Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly Gay USA on Channel 35 on Thursdays at 11 PM.