When Manhattan snubbed Irish gays, Queens opened its streets to an all-inclusive St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Gay marchers at the Woodside parade express their opinion to those who condemn them based on religious interpretation. Tribune photo by Ira Cohen
By ANDREW MOESEL
We all know Queens is just about the most diverse place on earth. It’s a borough where people of different ethnicities, races and sexual orientations live next door to each other. And such differences are more often celebrated in cultural events and festivals in Queens than they are tainted with occasional protests or acts of hateful violence.
Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that Queens has become home to the only all-inclusive St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the entire city. Begun in 2000, the event takes place in Sunnyside and Woodside two weeks before Manhattan’s parade, and invites any organization wishing to participate to march the streets—whether they’re clad in green or pink.
Born Of Controversy
Controversy over gays marching in the Manhattan St. Patrick’s Day parade started in the early 1990s, when the group that runs the parade, The Ancient Order of Hibernians, refused to let the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization march under their own banner. Accompanied by Mayor David Dinkins, the gay group marched—sans banners—and was received with angry taunts and tossed beer cans.
To protect himself from debris, Dinkins carried an umbrella through part of the parade. In a New York Times Op-ed column soon after, Dinkins compared his experience in the parade to marching in a civil rights march in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1950s. He avoided the parade from then on.
As a Catholic organization, the Hiberians looked at homosexuals as violating a core tenet of Catholicism, and therefore wanted to exclude them from events. St. Patrick’s Day parades in other boroughs also barred gay organizations from marching openly, citing similar rationale.
In a series of legal battles that followed in the mid-90s, the courts generally upheld the organizers’ right to exclude the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization while also, on several occasions, refusing to let the gay group hold public protests alongside the parade.
Finally, a few Queens residents decided to simply start their own parade instead.
Brendan Fay, a Woodside resident and a member of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, gathered friends and supporters and began to organize an alternative to the main Fifth Avenue parade. The idea was simple: anyone who wants to participate, come down, sign up, and you’re in.
A Parade For All
For all of the controversy surrounding the link between the parade and homosexuality, the vast majority of the participants have nothing to do with gay culture.
Watching the parade out of context, in fact, it can sometimes be difficult to tell it’s particularly Irish at all. Latin dancers spin and twirl colorful costumers. Korean marchers bang on traditional Asian drums.
The point of the parade is to celebrate Irish contributions to a wide array of cultures and societies, says Barbara Mohr, a co-chair of the event with Fay. Irishmen called the Santatritcos, for example, fought for Mexican independence in Texas and are considered national heroes, Mohr said. The Ecuadorian Navy was also started by an Irishman.
“The idea is to celebrate the Irish and Irish heritage. [Groups like] the Koreans come because they want to celebrate with us,” Mohr says. “There’s a lot of interconnectivity between ethnic groups that people aren’t even aware of.”
Organizers only have two criteria for allowing groups to march: no weapons are allowed, and everyone must respect one another. Those rules actually go a long way from separating the Queens parade from the one in Manhattan, which boasts long lines of armed police and military regiments.
From its inception, the Queens St. Patrick’s Day Parade has drawn major political figures because of its all-inclusive intent—it has also drawn its fair share of detractors who define it as merely a pro-gay demonstration.
The inaugural parade in 2000 drew freshman U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton and U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley. In 2002, the event scored an incredible coup when Mayor Michael Bloomberg attended and boycotted the larger Manhattan parade.
Christian and Republican Irish groups lobbied hard to block out Bloomberg, a Jewish Democrat who had recently joined the Republican Party. The most notable voice was well-known activist Pat Hurley, who sent a letter asking the mayor to skip the event.
“As Republicans, as Irish Americans and as Christians, we are upset at the mayor, and we see it as a stab in the back, and we will make sure that people take account of that when poll time comes around again,” Hurley told the Echo, an Irish newspaper.
Controversial New Paltz Mayor Jason West (l. to r.) marches in Queens with Councilman David Weprin and Speaker Gifford Miller. Tribune photo by Ira Cohen
Protestors have become a staple at the Queens St. Patrick’s Day Parade, although their number has been steadily declining as the years pass. Most participants seem to take it in stride.
“I threw a wiggle and a wink at one of the protesters—shame there wasn’t more of them,” Brian Fleming, an Irish musician who traveled to attend the parade, was quoted as saying by a popular online magazine in Ireland. “I don’t know what the AOH’s problem is. Real men aren’t afraid of gays and girls love it when you’re a bit ambiguous.”
Mohr becomes upset when people outside the event attempt to define the parade as a predominantly gay affair. Though the origins of the parade are rooted in the exclusion of homosexuals, she said the concept of all-inclusiveness extends far beyond it.
Even as the parade grows in number every year (more than 70 contingents participated in 2005) the ultimate goal of the parade is to encourage an environment where it no longer exists.
“I’m hoping that someday there won’t be a need for our parade,” Mohr says, “because everyone will be welcome on Fifth Avenue.”