One of New York City’s longest-running civic and political battles came to an end this week, not with a bang but a whimper. The organizers of the New York City Saint Patrick’s Day Parade announced that they would allow the Lavender and Green Alliance—a group composed of gay, lesbian, and transgender people of Irish descent— to participate in the annual march up Fifth Avenue. The group’s application to join the parade had been denied every year since 1994 due, parade organizers said, to its advocacy of an agenda at odds with the traditionally Catholic character of the event. In 2000, the group organized its own annual parade, St. Pat’s for All, in the heavily Irish neighborhoods of Sunnyside and Woodside, Queens.
Last week’s announcement was well received by LGBT advocates and their allies but failed to generate the sort of press you’d expect if you’d been watching the issue evolve over the last two decades. What was once one of the bitterest political fights (in a city known for bitter political fights) has simply resolved itself with barely a hint of pushback from one of the original adversaries. A spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York said that Timothy Cardinal Dolan has been out of town all week and may not be aware of the decision.
This marks a drastic change from a generation ago, when Dolan’s predecessor, John Cardinal O’Connor, squared off against New York City mayor David Dinkins in a public battle of wills over the issue. In 1991, Dinkins was booed by parade-goers for marching alongside the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization (ILGO). Police arrested two men for throwing open beer cans that “whizzed over the heads of the crowd, raining down an arc of liquid on the Mayor,” as the New York Times described it. Afterward, Dinkins claimed—rather dramatically—that “It was like marching in Birmingham, Alabama.”
Organizers banned ILGO the following year and, in solidarity, Dinkins stopped marching altogether. A defiant O’Connor, however, refused to buckle, declaring in a 1993 St. Patrick’s Day homily, “Neither respectability nor political correctness is worth one comma in the Apostles’ Creed.” While the church, he said, offers homosexuals its love and prayers, he “could never even be perceived as compromising Catholic teaching.” At the time, the parade was sponsored and organized by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a Catholic fraternal organization, which countered accusations of exclusion by saying the ban was not of gay people per se, but of explicitly political banners (with one notable exception: marchers could carry signs reading “England Get Out of Ireland”). Gays were allowed to march, the organizers said, as members of other sanctioned groups, just not as members of groups whose sole purpose was to promote their sexual identity. Explicitly pro-life organizations were banned as well. As far as anyone knows, they still are.
Over the ensuing decades, the parade fight became an emblem of the gay rights movement. Anti-Catholic rhetoric from groups like ILGO and Irish Queers got progressively nastier. Irish Queers began calling the parade “a demonstration of homophobia” and chastising the NYPD and FDNY for their participation: “[W]e will continue until we defeat the religious right attempt to hijack our communities and control our identities. The St. Patrick’s Day parade—the most public expression of the Irish community in America—is the right place exactly to stage our struggle.”
In 2014, under pressure from financial sponsors, the parade committee partially acquiesced, allowing a group of gay, lesbian, and transgender employees of NBCUniversal to march under their own banner. Calling the decision “a gesture of goodwill to the LGBT community in our continuing effort to keep the parade above politics,” the committee hoped it would be enough to placate LGBT activists. It was not—the Lavender and Green Alliance demanded that a group of self-identified gays of Irish descent be allowed to march. This year, they will be.
Catholic groups questioned Cardinal Dolan’s decision to accept the parade committee’s invitation to serve as the parade’s 2014 grand marshal, viewing it as a clear rejection of Cardinal O’Connor’s position (and that of his immediate successor, Edward Cardinal Egan). “If the Parade Committee allowed a group to publicize its advocacy of any actions contrary to Church teaching, I’d object,” Dolan responded. “In fact, the leaders of the Parade Committee tried to be admirably sensitive to Church teaching.” One can only wonder whether the cardinal still thinks so highly of the parade committee’s sensitivity. Maybe, to borrow a phrase from General Douglas MacArthur, old political fights don’t die, they just fade away. In this one, a clear victor has emerged.