New York City, where the world’s largest St. Patrick's Day Parade is held every year on March 17, will feature a group self-identifying itself as ‘gay’ that will join in the march under its own banner. The St Patricks Day Parade Committee, the group that organizes the parade made a statement on September 3 that a group calling itself OUT(at)NBCUniversal - "the affinity group for LGBT & Straight Ally employees at NBCUniversal," according to its website - will march up Fifth Avenue in the Big Apple under its identifying banner.
For now, it is unclear how the group was chosen: whether it was invited by the organizers or applied. Parade directors voted unanimously to include the group, the statement said. NBC is the company that broadcasts the parade. Other “gay” groups can apply to march in future years, spokesman Bill O'Reilly said.
The committee's statement welcoming the homosexual group said, "Organizers have diligently worked to keep politics -- of any kind -- out of the parade in order to preserve it as a single and unified cultural event." The change came with the insistence of New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee members, including Dr. John Lahey, president of Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, and Francis X. Comerford, chief revenue officer for NBC-owned TV stations. NBC reportedly threatened to drop coverage of the parade if the change was not enacted.
The heretofore ban on self-identifying homosexual groups participating in the largely Catholic parade has long been met with controversy. For example, Mayor Bill de Blasio refused to participate this year, while the Guinness brewing company dropped its sponsorship. “Guinness has a strong history of supporting diversity and being an advocate for equality for all. We were hopeful that the policy of exclusion would be reversed for this year’s parade. As this has not come to pass, Guinness has withdrawn its participation. We will continue to work with community leaders to ensure that future parades have an inclusionary policy,” a Guinness stated at the time.
Guinness reportedly met with parade organizers over the last year to reach a compromise that would free up its sponsorship. Heineken had also cancelled its sponsorship. Ford Motor Co. reportedly also threatened to drop its sponsorship.
In previous years, parade organizers said homosexuals were free to march but only as members of other groups and not with banners identifying their sexual orientation. Most of the groups marching each year carry banners identifying themselves. There will be approximately 320 units in next year's parade, the committee said. The committee stated that its "change of tone and expanded inclusiveness is a gesture of goodwill to the LGBT community in our continuing effort to keep the parade above politics." The statement said the parade was "remaining loyal to church teachings." O’Reilly said Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who is to be the parade's grand marshal next year, is "very supportive" of the change despite Catholic condemnation of homosexual activity. The cardinal said in 2013 that he supported the participation of homosexual people. "I know that there are thousands and thousands of gay people marching in this parade," he said. "And I'm glad they are."
Before NYC Police Commissioner William Bratton marched with uniformed officers last year, homosexual activists held a news conference beforehand to demand that officers should not participate in uniform. Uniformed city workers, marching bands with bagpipes, traditional Irish dancers and politicians are traditional participants at the parade. It draws hundreds of thousands of participants and spectators every year. The first parade was held in 1762 and has long been an expression of Catholic faith and Irish heritage.
In years past, it was the Ancient Order of Hibernians – a fraternal organization dedicated to defending the Catholic Church and Irish-American values – that sponsored the parade. However, the AOH withdrew in the 1990s when massive lawsuits were threatened. Since then, the St Patrick’s Parade Committee, run by Chairman John Dunleavy since 1993, has been the sponsor. Dunleavy has been closely linked to Cardinal Dolan. In a 2007 interview with the New York Irish Examiner, Dunleavy – who is Irish by birth - pointed out that the inclusion of homosexuals as an identifiable group in the march "…would change the spirit of the parade…"It's not a coincidence that the parade starts with a mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral."
According to IrishCentral.com, “But looming behind all its big decisions is the figure of Cardinal Dolan who, just by his position, has a huge role to play. There seems little doubt he would have to be consulted on any accommodation with gay groups. It seems a long shot he would agree. But these are different times; the Pope Francis statement ‘Who am I to judge?’ when asked about the gay lifestyle was an intriguing hint that the same old certainties do not apply.”
William Donohue, the leader of the Catholic League - advocacy group based in New York City - referred to the development in a statement released by his organization, "Never in the history of New York's St. Patrick's Day Parade have homosexuals been barred from marching, anymore than pro-life Catholics have, but in both cases they were not permitted to have their own unit. I have been assured that the rules have been formally changed to allow both of these groups, as well as others, to march under their own banner. That being the case, there should be no controversy. One would hope that all the new entries will conduct themselves in a manner that honors St. Patrick, lest another round of controversy emerges."
Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.