NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Organizers of the world’s largest St. Patrick’s Day parade announced Wednesday that they are ending a ban and allowing a gay group to march under its own banner for the first time.
As CBS 2’s Tony Aiello reported, proud New York Irish Catholics have celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with a parade in New York City since 1762. But since the 1990s, gay groups have protested the rule keeping them from marching under their own banner.
The prohibition on identified gay groups have made participation a political issue. In 1995, more than a dozen gay rights protesters were arrested at the parade.
The parade committee, in a statement made available to The Associated Press, said Wednesday that OUT(at)NBCUniversal — a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender support group at the company that broadcasts the parade — would be marching up Fifth Avenue on March 17 of next year under an identifying banner.
“This change of tone and expanded inclusiveness is a gesture of goodwill to the LGBT community, all the while remaining loyal to church teachings and principles that have guided the parade committee for so many decades,” parade committee said in a statement.
It’s unclear how the group was chosen: whether OUT(at)NBCUniversal, which is described on its website as “the affinity group for LGBT & Straight Ally employees at NBCUniversal,” was invited by the organizers or applied.
But NBC televises the parade, and sources told CBS 2 that network executives have been urging parade organizers to lift the ban.
The head of the Catholic League said additional pressure came from Guinness as well as from Heineken beer, which also ended parade sponsorship deals due to the policy.
“Corporate America is lined up with the gay rights movement. It’s not a secret,” said Catholic League president Bill Donohue. “And they’ve done the same thing here.”
The parade’s Committee Vice Chairman John Lahey denied that sponsorship led to the decision to include the gay group, 1010 WINS’ Al Jones reported.
“I don’t think we’re bending to anyone’s pressure. We received an application, we entertained it and approved and that’s the way that decision was made,” Lahey said.
Parade directors voted unanimously to include the group, the statement said.
“It’s about time,” said GLAAD President and chief executive officer Sarah Kate Ellis. “Discrimination has no place on America’s streets, least of all on Fifth Avenue.”
But many gay rights leaders have reacted cautiously to the announcement. Emmaia Gelman of the group Irish Queers called allowing one gay group to march next year “a crack in the veneer.”
“It’s great to see the pressure that has made the parade organizers back away a little bit from their total anti-gay stance, but it’s not open yet to the Irish queer community, and we’re still working on that,” Gelman said.
Gelman added that she believes the committee was more concerned about losing sponsorships.
“They didn’t talk to anyone in the Irish LGBT world…” she told WCBS 880’s Alex Silverman. “This was a deal that was done just between the parade organizers and NBC.
“Guinness and Heineken pulled their sponsorship from the parade, and the parade organizers made pretty clear that they couldn’t withstand the loss of another sponsor,” Gelman added.
Liz Halloran of the Human Rights Campaign called the inclusion of the NBC group progress, but noted the parade has not made any promises for the future.
“We’ll be keeping an eye on it and hope that this is the start of the end of the ban,” she said.
“As an Irish-Catholic American, I look forward to a fully inclusive St. Patrick’s Day Parade that I can share with my wife and children, just as my own parents shared with me,” Ellis said. “Until then, parade organizers must be held accountable to ending this ban once and for all.”
Meanwhile, parade spokesman Bill O’Reilly said Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who is to be the parade’s grand marshal next year, was “very supportive” of the change. Dolan will serve as the grand marshal of the parade next year.
“Neither my predecessors as Archbishop of New York nor I have ever determined who would or would not march in this parade (or any of the other parades that march along Fifth Avenue, for that matter), but have always appreciated the cooperation of parade organizers in keeping the parade close to its Catholic heritage,” he said. “My predecessors and I have always left decisions on who would march to the organizers of the individual parades. As I do each year, I look forward to celebrating Mass in honor of Saint Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland, and the Patron Saint of this Archdiocese, to begin the feast, and pray that the parade would continue to be a source of unity for all of us.”
Dolan spoke further about the decision at a news conference Wednesday night, CBS 2’s Dave Carlin reported.
“I have no trouble with the decision at all,” Dolan said, adding that the parade has “never been free of controversy,” and that he thought the decision to allow the group to march was “a wise one.”
“The decision wasn’t mine to make but I’ve learned as a student in the history of the parade and I’ve learned in my five happy years as archbishop of New York to have immense trust and confidence in the wisdom of the parade organizers…” Dolan said.
As for Mayor de Blasio, he was the first mayor in decades not to take part in the annual march on Fifth Avenue.
The mayor told 1010 WINS he has yet to commit to walking in the parade. He said he wants to speak with parade organizers and community members before he makes a decision.
“I know it represents progress,” de Blasio said. “I know this is a good day for New York City, and it’s a step forward for inclusion. But I need to know more before I can decide what I’m going to do in March.”
The City Council also didn’t have an official presence at the parade this year.
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito applauded the committee’s move Wednesday, but said she, too, has not decided whether she will march in 2015.
“I think that’s a great and very welcome first step,” Mark-Viverito told WCBS 880’s Rich Lamb. “My understanding is that other groups can then apply. My hope and expectation is that other groups will be able to march with their banners and however they self-identify.”
Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-26th) said he was thrilled about the news.
“As someone who is both gay and Irish American and equally proud of both, I have not been able to march for over 20 years because we were excluded,” he said.
The committee’s statement welcoming OUT(at)NBCUniversal 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. Paradoxically, that ended up politicizing the parade.”
Police Commissioner Bill Bratton marched this year with a contingent of uniformed officers. Gay activists held a news conference before the march to say officers should not participate in uniform.
Uniformed city workers, marching bands with bagpipes, traditional Irish dancers and politicians are traditional participants at the parade, which can draw hundreds of thousands of participants and spectators.
Most marching units in the parade carry identifying banners. There are about 320 units in next year’s parade, the committee said.
Other gay groups can apply to march in future years, spokesman Bill O’Reilly said.
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