New Irish foreign minister meets with gay New Yorkers, condemns exclusion, but joins parade
by Andy Humm
Gay City News
March 18, 2011
The group Irish Queers led the 20th protest against the exclusion of Irish LGBT groups from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Fifth Avenue –– an event that continues to be boycotted by virtually every major progressive politician in New York, but draws the participation of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, and thousands of uniformed city police officers and firefighters.
Also on hand for this year’s parade was the new Tánaiste or deputy prime minister of Ireland, Eamon Gilmore, leader of the Labour Party that on March 9 formed a coalition government with Fine Gael, led by Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny.
Gilmore, who is also the new foreign minister, met with a group of Irish-American gay and lesbian New Yorkers at the consul general’s office here on March 16 and decried the “exclusion” of the parade.
“I think [these parades] need to celebrate Ireland as it is, not as people imagine it,” Gilmore said according the Irish Voice. “Equality is very much at the center of who we are in our identity in Ireland.”
An Irish Voice reporter was invited to the meeting, but other media, including Gay City News, were not.
Consul General Noel Kilkenny reached out to veteran Irish-American gay activist Brendan Fay to put together the group to meet with Gilmore, a meeting that City Councilman Daniel Dromm, a Jackson Heights Democrat, one of the invitees, called “historic.”
Dromm said Gilmore told them he wanted to work toward marriage equality in Ireland, which just enacted a civil partnership law last year, as part of reforms brought to a constitutional convention.
The Voice reported that Ireland is aiming to adopt a new constitution to coincide with the centenary of the Easter Rising in 1916 that led in time to Irish independence from the UK.
Fay said that Gilmore “repeated like a mantra that ‘exclusion is not Irish.’”
Mick Meenan, an Irish American reporter (formerly deputy editor of Gay City News) who was there but not in his journalistic capacity, said Gilmore “asked us if anyone would object to his marching. The foreign minister indicated that he told the consul general he was uncomfortable with parades where gays were excluded. He asked the gathering if any of us had any reservations about him marching.”
Meenan said that no one objected.
Fay said, “Everyone around the table clearly conveyed that exclusion and discrimination by the parade is wrong.” But, he said, no one asked Gilmore to honor the 20-year boycott.
“The consensus was [Gilmore] was clearly a man of good conscience and an ally and we deferred to his decision” on participating in the Manhattan parade that Meenan said “has been abandoned by the gay and lesbian community because of its intransigence.”
Sean Cahill, a top official at Gay Men Health Crisis also there in his individual rather than official capacity, said, “No one said he shouldn’t march. I don’t think that he was going to let us tell him what to do. Personally, I have a bigger picture. He was just elected deputy prime minister a week ago. Ireland is in much worse economic shape than we’re in. He needs to cultivate trade and tourism to bring down Ireland’s 14 percent unemployment rate. He needs a strong relationship with the American Irish community.”
Fay said that Gilmore “said he would convey his commitment to equality and inclusion to leaders and parade organizers that he met during his visit.”
John Francis Mulligan of Irish Queers, who was among about 30 protesters on Fifth Avenue, wrote in an email, “It’s unfortunate that people keep turning to Brendan to discuss the NYC St. Patrick’s parade as if he’s the only gay in the village. Brendan has created a very nice inclusive event in Queens, but has stayed far away from confronting the anti-gay parade on Fifth Avenue since the mid-1990s. It’s outrageous that he and the others who met with Gilmore didn’t articulate the single message that’s been put forth for 20 years by ILGO [the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization] and then Irish Queers, as well as supporters from ACT UP to Bernadette Devlin McAliskey: this is a bigoted parade that seeks to silence and erase queers, so do not support it. It’s outrageous that they didn’t convey that almost no elected officials march in the parade because it’s such a disgrace.
“That said, Gilmore can get past it just by doing better. Stay out of the parade, affirm that the Irish government will not support it, and call on others to do the same. He made a pretty good start on that yesterday –– now he just needs to seek better advice and finish the job.”
Emmaia Gelman of Irish Queers said, “The parade organizers’ bigotry in the name of Irish culture has been pernicious, and backed by wealthy Irish-American business and religious forces –– we need [Gilmore’s] help to shift the balance of power.”
The major political leaders who support the boycott include City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Comptroller John Liu, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.
The Irish Voice and other sources attributed the refusal of Irish President Mary McAleese to be grand marshal this year to her objections to the discrimination, though her office only cited “scheduling conflicts.” And she sent a congratulatory letter to the parade organizers this year.
Fay, who for twelve years has organized St. Pat’s For All, an LGBT-inclusive St. Patrick’s parade in Queens, got arrested as recently as 1999 protesting LGBT exclusion at the Throggs Neck, Bronx St. Patrick’s Day parade and just wrote to organizers of the Park Slope, Brooklyn parade to allow his Lavender and Green group to participate on March 20. He was turned down. (Critics of the Park Slope parade will address the issue in a 1 p.m. press conference that day at the Old First Reformed Church at 729 Carroll Street at Seventh Avenue.)
Fay, who grew up in Ireland, said his group conveyed to Gilmore that gay leaders such as Quinn and Dromm “are not able to march as themselves” in the Fifth Avenue parade. He said, “I would have preferred [Gilmore] had not participated, but we will never get 100 percent.”
Meenan, whose four grandparents are from Ireland and has visited there many times, was very impressed by Gilmore. “He spoke about his using his office as a bully pulpit,” he said, including urging American officials to provide greater recognition of same-sex couples, particularly for immigration purposes.
According to the Irish Voice, Gilmore said, “For the majority of Irish people, being gay is no longer an issue. That’s not to say that there isn’t resistance,” especially from the “extreme right” on the issue of same-sex marriage, he said. “But issues of equality are issues that have to be taken on.” Gilmore also committed to a drive to end bullying in schools.
Among the other New Yorkers at the meeting were human rights attorney Colleen Meenan, Mick’s sister, Kathleen Walsh D’Arcy of St. Pat’s for All, Dr. Tom Moulton, Fay’s spouse, Tom McLoughlin of the gay Catholic group Dignity, and Stanley and Kathleen Rygor, parents of the late gay activist Robert Rygor.
The younger Rygor was thrown out of the 1978 St. Patrick’s Day Parade for trying to carry a banner reading “Gay Irish Americans,” and later marched among gays accompanying Mayor David Dinkins in 1991 when the controversy over including the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization arose and the mayor forged that compromise. Dinkins and the group faced jeering and the occasional flying beer can and the like, and gay identified marchers have been banned ever since.
Hundreds of demonstrators, including Fay, Quinn, and State Senator Tom Duane, were arrested, each numerous times, in annual protests against the exclusionary Fifth Avenue policy throughout the 1990s.
There were no arrests of protestors on Fifth Avenue this year, though Irish Queers is now appealing to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, last year’s grand marshal, to stop allowing police officers to march in uniform in the parade, given the anti-gay message it conveys. The letter to Kelly was signed by Irish Queers, ACT UP-NY, the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn, the Metropolitan Community Church of New York, the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, OUTlaw at the Cardoza School of Law, Queerocracy, Queers for Economic Justice, and SALGA-NYC “serving the Desi Queer Community,” as well as the LGBT Advisory Committee to the NYPD. The text of the letter is at IrishQueers.org.
Gelman of Irish Queers said, “Kelly looked mad when he passed our protest. I hope that means he is paying attention.”
When Speaker Quinn dissociated herself from the Staten Island St. Patrick’s parade on March 6 for denying a gay group the right to participate, she would not join the call to end participation in anti-gay parades by uniformed city personnel. She and Comptroller Liu have also dodged questions about the appropriateness of thousands of dollars in City Council member item money going to these parades, though Quinn promised a thorough review of such funding for the coming fiscal year.
Quinn has expressed optimism that LGBT groups will soon be able to march in all parades they wish to in the city.
Lucy McDiarmid, author of “The Irish Art of Controversy” and an English professor who has been protesting since 1997, said she has witnessed “a difference in response from the people in the parade” over the years.
“People used to be angry and scowling. Many are signaling solidarity with us now,” she said.
Quinnipiac College in Connecticut, whose president, John T. Lahey, is a former grand marshal of the parade, had a big contingent in the Fifth Avenue parade. Some of them gave me a terse “no comment” when asked about the exclusion of LGBT groups, but two parents of current students, Sharon Westin and Ellen Cunningham, expressed support for letting gay groups in. “Hopefully it will happen,” Cunningham said.
Another Cunningham –– Sheila who is African-American with an Irish grandmother –– was at the protest for the tenth time. “There’s more acceptance in the crowd,” she said. “I’m here because I believe in civil rights for all.”
As Irish Queers were leaving the protest area on Fifth and 56th, a group of ten people clad in green in their early 20s from New Jersey picked up some of their signs and continued the protest. “We’re doing it for our gay friend,” one of them said.