Why Irish eyes are not smiling

They say that on March 17 everyone is Irish, but it must not feel that way for the members of New York’s Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization (ILGO), who were again denied participation in the city’s largest St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Protesters took to the streets on parade day with particular fury this year, after parade chairman John Dunleavy’s loaded comments to The Irish Times last week.

According to the Associated Press, Dunleavy served ILGO with a number of insults, saying “If an Israeli group wants to march in New York, do you allow neo-Nazis into their parade? If African Americans are marching in Harlem, do they have to let the Ku Klux Klan into their parade? . If we let the ILGO in, is it the Irish Prostitute Association next?”

The debate over whether gay organizations should be allowed to march in a parade for what is essentially a religious-rooted holiday has been annually erupting since ILGO was first denied permission to march in 1991. Thirty-five members of ILGO did end up walking that year, but after being verbally assaulted and showered with beer, the group has not walked since.

The St. Patty’s Day parade conflict is something New York shares with other big cities across the nation – though sometimes it yields a different result.

In New York, ILGO is excluded on the grounds that the parade is run by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a Catholic group. But in Boston, a 1993 court ruling forced the veterans who run the city’s parade to allow a gay organization to march. The veterans went as far as to cancel the parade in 1994 – as many as 20,000 participants and 1 million spectators make it the biggest Irish-American event in New England – simply to prevent the group’s participation.

Dunleavy’s comments reflect the tension that has surrounded the conflict for over a decade – but were these comments really necessary? Putting the question of whether ILGO should be allowed to march on the back burner for the moment, Dunleavy managed to single handedly make the conflict worse for all parties involved.

Maybe a peaceful solution was never a possibility, but even something as small as peaceful protest would have been a step forward in the conflict – and might have been on the horizon. But no, Dunleavy thought it would be a good idea to compare the opposition to prostitutes.

The Hibernians argue that ILGO is not excluded because its members are gay, but because the organization does not reflect the ideals the Hibernians wish to promote in the parade. I’m sorry, but I don’t think placing a group on the same level as prostitutes is in agreement with honoring a saint.

In 15 years, ILGO has not once petitioned to use the St. Patrick’s Day parade as a platform for anything it morally or politically supports. All it has asked for is the right to be identified – just as Dunleavy marches behind a banner that identifies him as a member of the parade board. The purpose of the parade is not for Dunleavy to celebrate his position on the parade board, or any Irish organization to celebrate what its individual organization stands for. The purpose is for them to come together and celebrate something bigger, their members’ heritage, which was part of each participant before he or she was ever inducted into any organization.

What is especially disheartening is that in war-torn Ireland, gay organizations are allowed – and even invited – to take part in St. Patrick’s Day parades. As members of a country that is supposed to be the epitome of all things free, it seems Americans’ priorities have fallen by the wayside.

Perhaps Judge J. Harold Flannery wrote it best in Boston’s 1993 trial court decision allowing gay organizations to be part of the city’s parade: “History does not record that St. Patrick limited his ministry to heterosexuals or that George Washington’s soldiers were all straight. Inclusiveness should be the hallmark of their parade.”