St. Patrick’s day is a cultural and religious celebration held each 17th of March to commemorate the life of the man who brought Christianity to the Irish people. Though it has evolved into a largely secular celebration of Irish heritage, its religious roots can never be fully separated from the festivities.
Due to this fact, LGBTQ+ people have historically had a complicated relationship with the holiday and specifically with organizers of the various St Patrick’s Day parades held around the world, but specifically in the USA.
New York City is home to the oldest and largest St. Patrick’s Parade in the world. No stranger to controversy, the parade and its organizers have had a long history of political skirmishes. In the 1960’s, under the direction of Parade Chairman Judge James Comerford, Senator Robert Kennedy, Irish poet Brendan Behan and activist Bernadette Devlin were all barred from participating in the parade, among others. Comerford’s reasons for excluding certain people often boiled down to his personal disapproval of their behavior and their politics. In 1983 when Mike Flannery, head of Noraid (Irish Northern Aid Committee), was named Grand Marshal, the Irish government famously withdrew their support of the parade. Similarly, in the years that followed, representatives from the Irish government would leave the reviewing stand when Noraid members would march past them. It took until 1989 for there to be a female Grand Marshal for the parade. Up until Dorothy Hayden Cudahy women were prohibited from even being considered for the role. The list of problematic behavior goes on but, of course, the most famous of these incidents was that outright banning of queer groups from participating in the parade until 2015.
The history of conflict between the queer community and the NYC St Patrick’s Day parade organizers stems back to 1990. That year the Irish Gay and Lesbian Organization (IGLO) asked the Ancient Order of Hiberians (AOH), who ran the parade, permission to march in the 1991 parade. The request was denied, supposedly citing a deluge of applications from 39 other groups to participate and pressure to scale back the size of the event. The office of then NYC Mayor David Dinkins tried to mediate the negotiations and eventually, just two days before the parade, an agreement was reached. The IGLO and the mayor would march with the District 7 contingent of the AOH.
The mayor and IGLO were famously met with boos from the crowd. Beer cans were thrown at them in addition to homophobic and gay slurs. An outraged Dinkins likened it to marches he has participated in during the Civil Rights Movement. Undeterred, the IGLO wanted to march in 1992. The AOH outright banned them this time citing their “outrageous behavior and conduct” even though it was clearly the spectators that caused the melee the year before. In response Mayor Dinkins boycotted the parade.
In 1993 the Human Rights Commission mandated the inclusion of the IGLO in the parade until Federal Judge Kevin Thomas Duffy struck it down as unconstitutional and a violation of the AOH’s free speech. This decision was reinforced by the 1995 US Supreme Court ruling on Hurley vs. Irish American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston which stated that private citizens and organizations hosting a public event had the constitutional right to exclude participants whose messages with which they disagreed. Apparently, the Bostonian Irish queer community was facing the same exclusion as their New York City counterparts. In protest, all mayors of Boston from this point on would boycott their city’s St Patrick’s Day Parade.
Things continued on in this fashion with a few noteworthy developments through the years. In 2000 the “St Pats For All” Parade made its debut in Queens, New York as an inclusive counterpoint to the Manhattan parade. In 2010 Irish President Mary McAleese turned down the parade organizers’ (now an independent non-AOH committee) invitation to be Grand Marshall, citing LGBT exclusion as her reasoning. But it wasn’t until 2014 that a big shift finally took place.
That year saw NY Mayor Bill DeBlasio boycott the parade. He was the first mayor since Dinkins to make such a stand. The publicity around this was compounded when Guinness announced that it would no longer be a sponsor of the parade due to its discriminatory practices. Sam Adams and Heineken took similar measures against Boston’s parade, demanding inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community. These drastic measures finally worked. As of 2015 queer groups in both cities have been allowed to participate under their own banners.
You would think after all of this that the issue would finally be settled, but sadly it is not. As of 2018 Staten Island, an outer borough of New York City, announced that LGBT groups would not be permitted to join in their parade. They remain steadfast in this decision up through this year. Undoubtedly motivated by the current state of political affairs in the country, it remains no less troublesome.
Every LGBTQ+ person has the right to exhibit cultural and national pride in conjunction with their pride as a queer person. It comes as a bit of a shock that the struggle to obtain this still exists in the USA, of all places. It is indeed ironic that as of 1992, the Irish people have welcomed queer groups into their parades without incident. Ireland, after all, is the home of the St Patrick’s feast day and a Christian stronghold. It just serves as a reminder that as far as queer people have come, there is always work to be done. Let us hope for an even better and completely inclusive St Patrick’s Day in 2023.