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March 04, 2014

Irish America's Identity Parades

When Irish civil rights activists proposed marching in the Philadelphia St. Patrick's Day parade in 1969, they were given permission to carry their banner on the condition that it clearly stated they were supporting civil rights in Ireland and not black civil rights in the United States.

This year, organizers of St. Patrick's Day parades in cities with historically large Irish American populations are again choosing to be on the wrong side of history. Controversies around LGBT participation in the New York and Boston parades have become so predictable they've become part of the St. Patrick's Day tradition. After decades of protests, alternative marches, and court cases, the surprise is that it's still an issue at all.

In Boston in 1994, organizers cancelled the event rather than comply with court decisions to allow gay groups to march. A counter-suit prevailed, allowing organizers to exclude public displays by LGBT groups. In recent years an alternative LGBT-friendly march has followed the official parade from about a mile behind.

This year the organizers (the Allied War Veterans Council) are prepared to allow openly gay marchers in the parade as long as they don't wear shirts or hold signs bearing the word "gay."

The furors seem curiously anachronistic, throwbacks to previous generations in the struggle for LGBT rights. They also seem oddly un-Irish -- as the Dublin St. Patrick's Day parade has for years welcomed the participation of LGBT groups, realizing there's nothing un-Irish about being gay. Civil unions have been legal in Ireland since 2010 and the Irish government plans to hold a referendum to endorse gay marriage equality in this coming year.

Last month Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin denounced homophobia, saying, "Anybody who doesn't show love towards gay and lesbian people is insulting God," and that homophobia was "part of the culture we grew up in, but we have to grow out of it."

This shift in attitude from official Ireland blatantly undermines claims from those in New York, Boston and elsewhere that public LGBT participation somehow contravenes Irish identity. If open LGBT participation in St. Patrick's Day parades are okay in Dublin, Cork and elsewhere, why not in New York and Boston?

New York's Mayor Bill de Blasio will boycott the main Manhattan parade down Fifth Avenue in protest of its exclusion of LGBT groups, as will the New York City Council. With a surplus of cultural parades in New York City, the mayor chooses only to attend those which are "inclusive." Irish government minister Joan Burton also plans to boycott the march because of its policy to ban gay groups from marching, although it seems that Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny is planning on going.

The controversies also seem peculiarly un-American. The United States is rightly recognized across the world for its leadership on LGBT issues, on promoting its values through a foreign policy that aims to promote and protect the rights of LGBT people from Kampala to Kiev. To have its own major cities still publicly struggling with LGBT rights in 2014 is as embarrassing as, well, having them struggle with the idea of black civil rights in 1969.

Brian Dooley is author of "Black and Green, The Fights for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland and Black America" and "Choosing The Green? Second Generation Irish and the Cause of Ireland"