THE BLOG
03/13/2014 03:13 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

St. Paddy's Day Bigotry in New York

After two decades of activism, the fiasco on Fifth Avenue continues to exclude anybody who dares to be openly gay. Still... protesting the St. Patrick's Day Parade seems so 1991. Young queers probably don't even think it's relevant, dismissing the event as another boring parade stuffed with cops and firemen and pre-pubescent baton-twirlers. You'll just end up with green puke on your shoes.

But in a way, the cops and firefighters are the point. Especially this year, when new mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to give the bigoted parade a miss, but is letting his police commissioner take part, along with all his uniformed troops and firefighters. They're calling it a free speech issue, as if no other employer in the world has control over how employees present themselves. As if those folks couldn't march in their civvies.

Get real. In a 1999 brief filed by the City of New York in the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, New York already admitted that when cops march in uniform it gives the appearance of approval. And that marching in hatefests has consequences, "The NYPD's credibility with the community would be seriously undermined and its ability to perform its mission irreparably damaged."

No wonder the prevailing wisdom among LGBT people then, and often now, is to avoid calling the police in any but the most dire situation. Better to bandage each other's wounds than report harassment or a bashing, only to get humiliated by the cops. Letting police and firefighters march sends a clear message that people like us are fair game for violence. Somehow not part of the city at all.

I still remember marching with Mayor Dinkins and the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization (ILGO) in ancient 1991. We had to pass through a hostile crowd, and paid for it with a shower of beer and insults that weren't just homophobic, but racist, because Dinkins was our first African-American mayor.

ILGO was back again the next year, and after a countermarch, we were corralled into a pen with our signs and forced to watch wave after wave of uniformed cops and firefighters give us the finger, shouting insults and sneers like we were garbage. Not New Yorkers like them.

What we really have here isn't a fight over religion and whether queers fit into the Catholic Church: it's about our standing as New Yorkers. If anybody really believed the parade was a religious Catholic event we would have moved on years ago. But nobody does. Cardinal Dolan (and his predecessors) and the parade organizers themselves know better than anyone else that the whole thing's just an excuse for a citywide party, with the Irishness watered down like cheap beer. And with all the tourist dollars at stake, newscasters and advertisers continue to promote St. Patrick's as the day that everybody in New York is Irish -- except queers.

Symbols like this matter. It's why the black civil rights movement didn't just fight for voting rights and an end to violence, but a seat at the lunch counter and an end to "White's Only" water fountains. It's all or nothing.

If LGBT people really count as New Yorkers, Mayor de Blasio needs to listen to Irish Queers and rethink his position on letting uniforms march. Better yet, he should instruct the city government to issue next year's St. Paddy's Day permit to more inclusive organizers that are at least conversant with the new millennium, and aware that Ireland itself has changed since 1991 when the members of New York's Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization jumpstarted a movement by coming out to their parents back home. LGBT people have been visible there ever since. The country is also more racially and ethnically diverse now than most people here imagine.

Just do it, Bill. Give somebody else a chance to hold a better parade. Then everybody can wear what they want to march. Uniforms. Tiaras. Or just a few shamrocks where it counts.

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