Bill de Blasio is not going to take part in New York City’s main St. Patrick’s Day parade in March because the organizers bar gay and lesbian groups from marching. He’ll become the first mayor to skip the parade since David Dinkins did in 1993—an election year—two years after Dinkins had beer cans thrown at him by parade observers for the affront of marching with gay groups rather than at the parade’s head. The city comptroller Scott Stringer, Public Advocate Letitia James and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will refrain from marching this year as well.
Some want the city to go further and bar uniformed police officers and firefighters from participating. James, Mark Green and dozens of other current and former officials joined in signing an open letter to de Blasio arguing that “the presence of uniformed police and firefighters in such a procession sends a clear signal to LGBTQ New Yorkers that these personnel, who are charged with serving and protecting all New Yorkers, do not respect the lives or safety of LGBT people.”
But de Blasio yesterday refused to take that step. “I believe that uniformed city workers have a right to participate if they choose to, and I respect that right,” he said.
St. Patrick’s Day, which has been celebrated with a parade in New York since 1762, is a Catholic feast day on the anniversary of the death of a historical figure who, the story goes, drove the snakes out of Ireland, and who personifies the island’s Christianization. The Catholic church considers gay and lesbian sex sinful. So the argument parade organizers have made in barring gay groups (individual gays are officially welcome to march, as they doubtless have for centuries) is that it’s a religious celebration.
But St. Patrick’s Day has long had other connotations, most fundamentally in the “wearing of the green,” which is essentially a nationalist homage to the United Irishmen, who fought, lost, were tortured and killed in the rebellion of 1798—one of many attempts to end the occupation of Ireland by the British Crown, which did everything it could to exterminate the Irish language, culture and, yes, religion. Irish national identity and faith are inextricably linked, but they are not synonymous: Wolfe Tone, one of the heroes of the 1798 rebellion, was a Protestant. The song about the rebellion and the “Wearing of the Green” includes a nod to American notions of inclusion and equality:
But if at last our color should be torn from Ireland’s heart, her sons with shame and sorrow from the dear old sod will part.
I’ve heard a whisper of a country that lies beyond the sea, where rich and poor stand equal in the light of freedom’s day.
Oh, Erin! Must we leave you, driven by the tyrant’s hand? Must we ask a mother’s welcome from a strange but happy land?
Where the cruel cross of England’s thralldom never shall be seen and where in peace we’ll live and die a-wearing of the green.
Let’s face it, modern St. Patrick’s Day has little to do either with Catholic practice or the enduring hope of unifying all thirty-two counties. Frankly, it has little to do with being Irish. “Danny Boy” was written by an English guy who apparently never set foot in Ireland. Some of the naughtier “Kiss me, I’m Irish” gear is not the sort of garb old St. Pat would let his sister wear. Green beer and plastic hats? So embarassing.
Still, the notion that people should be able to stand up and say who they are—Irish, Catholic, gay or whatever—is one of the threads that links the day and the parade to something meaningful and resonant for all people.
Eventually, the St. Patrick’s Day parade will realize that excluding gay groups defiles that legacy, because society’s evolution on LGBTQ rights is inexorable. For now, though, its organizers have the legal right to exclude whomever they want. The issue is whether the city, which does have the right to prevent a uniformed city employee from wearing that uniform to an event, should allow cops and firefighters to participate in uniform in a parade that bars groups because of their sexual orientation.
“The NYPD and FDNY’s participation in the parade is hugely questionable under the law—and the fact that the mayor doesn’t seem concerned with remedying this problem is as disturbing legally as it is morally and politically,” said Alan Levine, an attorney associated with the Center for Constitutional Rights, after de Blasio’s statement. “If the guarantee of respect for equality and dignity that is embedded in human rights law and the constitution means anything, it surely means that uniformed police—who are charged with equal enforcement of the law—should not be parading down a public street conveying a message of contempt for one of our city’s communities.”
De Blasio is taking a significant step by not marching as mayor. He doesn’t want to alienate cops and firefighters, whom he needs to keep the city safe and with whom he’s locked in contract negotiations, by telling them not to march.
Fair enough. The man's got a lot of fish to fry right now. But this year, as a first step, he could do more than simply say that those workers have a right to march. As politically conservative as many of them are, the vast majority of cops and firefighters are decent people who embrace their role as heroes. The mayor could appeal to that decency, and ask the cops to do the right thing and pressure parade organizers to include LGBT groups. Who knows, the organizers may well relent if a core constituency asks for change. Then the whole controversy could go away, and we could all get back to our corned beef. It can't hurt to ask, and appeal to the best in people. It is certainly better than just staying home.
An impossible dream, you say? Not more so than one dude getting all the snakes off an island. I mean, apparently there were never any snakes there, but you know what I mean.