Politics

03.17.14

The Grotesque Ban On Gays In New York’s St Patrick’s Day Parade

In states where gay marriage is legal, gays are still banned from openly marching in St Patrick’s Day parades in New York and Boston.

It’s obscene, in 2014, that gay groups are forbidden from marching in St. Patrick’s Day parades in two of America’s most liberal cities. In Dublin—Dublin! I daresay a more Irish city even than Boston—gays have marched for years. As far as anyone can see, the parade flourishes, no epidemic of gayness has “afflicted” the children born in the years since inclusion, and everybody goes home happy. This isn’t just a foreign phenomenon. Chicago’s St Patrick’s Day parade has managed to include gays without catastrophe ensuing as well.

 The New York-Boston situation, while legally not only understandable but completely defensible, is a moral shambles; to the extent that the men making and enforcing this ban won’t just live in history, they’ll live in infamy.

I say it’s legally defensible because, like it or not, the Ancient Order of Hibernians is entitled to enjoy one of the few justifiable carve-outs to civil rights law. Courts have usually held that private, “expressive” associations can limit their membership, and this is right: Imagine if the NAACP were forced to admit white supremacists, or, for that matter, if a gay pride group were forced to welcome homophobes. Constitutionally, the New York and Boston bans are justified—although let us note that we’re just talking about one day a year here---no one is asking for ongoing participation in the association’s business.

That’s why in human terms, this is such an abominable disgrace. I have to say I was stunned to learn last month that the ban in New York still even existed. I was a young reporter in the city and covered this controversy in its infancy. I was still in New York when Mike Bloomberg became mayor and marched in his first parade. But in the 12 years since, I quit following it, until I saw Mayor Bill De Blasio’s announcement earlier this year that he wouldn’t march. What! That ban is still in place? After I got over the shock, I actually laughed. This is like a middle school in the mid-1970s still outlawing Beatles haircuts, or like Bob Jones University’s ban on physical contact between unmarried students (yep, still in place; here’s the 2014 student handbook). It’s just that weird that these proscriptions still exist.

Back in the day, I sort of understood the Hibernians’ position. Tensions on all these matters were high in New York. This was the age of ACT-UP, the in-your-face AIDS awareness organization started by playwright Larry Kramer to, well, get in people’s faces about the AIDS crisis. ACT UP staged big gay and lesbian kiss-ins at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, on a Sunday morning no less. There were episodes, also at St. Patrick’s, of desecration of the host. I’m not a believer. But I grew up eating those wafers and sipping that awful wine, albeit in the less-demanding milieu of Episcopalianism, and that was too much even for me.

The cultural battle lines were firm them. In fact, the New York City of the early 1990s was deeply polarized in ways not so different from what’s become of the broader country. David Dinkins (who refused to march) and Rudy Giuliani (who relished marching) faced each other in two consecutive elections, 1989 and 1993. Dinkins and his “gorgeous mosaic” won by about 2 percent the first time, and Giuliani and his revenge of the outer boroughs coalition won by about 2 percent the second time. The coalitions just hated each other. A fair amount of the hatred had to do specifically with the political rights of gay people—a City Council bill to include gays (they weren’t “LGBT” then, just gay and lesbian) in tenant non-discrimination laws nearly sparked fistfights at City Hall.

But all that is ancient history now. What tension is there in New York City over gay issues? Any questions of gay belonging are long-since settled, and I don’t mean just in Chelsea, but in Staten Island, too. What sort of threat could a gay-oriented banner pose in 2014? Even the Pope has said of gay people “who am I to judge,” There is no remaining excuse, not that there was much of one before. What remains is just bigotry, and probably a spiteful resistance to being seen as caving in to the relativists.

I gather it’s the New York City Police Department that issues parade permits. For years now, the NYPD permitted gay and lesbian officers to serve openly. A contingent from the Gay Officers’ Action League has marched in the city’s Gay Pride Parade since 1996, so the cops are way ahead of the Irish. I think it would be the most fantastic irony if someday, this got so ridiculous and so utterly indefensible on any conceivable human basis that the NYPD revokes the Hibernians’ permit. That’s exactly what this organization—founded, incidentally, to fight discrimination, under the motto “Friendship, Unity, and Christian Charity”—deserves.