For the first time in 20 years, a New York City mayor won’t march in the St. Patrick’s day parade on Fifth Avenue. Mayor Bill de Blasio said he wouldn’t participate in the annual celebration because parade organizers exclude LGBT groups. Last Sunday, however, he spoke at and joined the St. Pat’s For All parade on Skillman Avenue in Sunnyside, Queens.
“This is a parade that celebrates inclusion, diversity, unity. That is what this city is about,” said de Blasio. “That is what has made this city strong.”
De Blasio, who marched in the parade when he was public advocate as well, spoke about the importance of the parade, which began in 2000.
“A lot of times in life, you have to start something in the direction of progressive values, you have to start a process of change even when it doesn’t look easy,” he said. “And soon, over time you find that people take to it. They understand this is the right way. They understand that together we can get somewhere.”
In contrast to the 5th Avenue parade, which prohibits marchers from carrying signs identifying themselves as gay, the parade in Queens featured several LGBT organizations, including Irish Queers, an advocacy group.
“The [5th Avenue] parade continues to be and anti-gay, bigoted event,” said Harlem resident J. F. Mulligan, 44, a member of Irish Queers. “It’s gone from being a celebration of Irishness to a private, religious event.”
“This parade is great because it’s for everyone,” he said. “But separate is not equal.”
The parade featured a wide variety of groups marching down Skillman Avenue in Sunnyside, including the Ethical Humanist Society of Queens, the Gay Officers Action League, Transportation Alternatives, and the group An Slua Nua (Irish speakers of New York City). Residents of Sunnyside and visitors to the neighborhood lined the street for the entire parade route, cheering raucously for each group. Many waived miniature Irish flags and sported green outfits for the occasion.
The parade also featured Irish drag queen Panty Bliss, whose impassioned speech on gay rights he gave in February at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin spread widely online.
“This is the kind of open, inclusive and hospitable reflection of Ireland that I recognize as the Ireland I come from,” Bliss said about the parade. “This is the Ireland I want to be reflected around the world.”
Some Irish residents participate in both parades, nevertheless. John Keating, 42, a Sunnyside resident originally from Limerick, Ireland, for example, attends both the St. Pat’s for All Parade and the 5th Avenue parade, though he says he prefers the Queens parade.
“Everyone can join in, that’s what is good about it,” he said. “This one’s more fun.”
His wife, however, does not join Keating at the 5th Avenue parade.
“I don’t like the idea of a private parade,” said Kate Swearengen, 32.
In addition to mayor de Blasio, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Public Advocate Letitia James marched in the Queens parade and are opting out of the 5th Avenue celebration next week. Congresswomen Grace Meng showed her support and marched as well.
Mike Mason, 34, of Sunnyside, marched in the parade carrying a sign featuring community organizer Mother Jones.
“It’s a real community event,” said Mason. “There are no barriers here, everyone melds together. Sure it’s about Irish pride, but everyone is welcome.”
Kelly Cogswell, 47, an Irish Queers member from the East Village, protested the inclusion of uniformed police and firefighters in the 5th Avenue parade as she marched with other group members.
“What’s most egregious is that the organizers [of the 5th Avenue parade] are saying, ‘everyone is Irish, except queers’,” said Cogswell. “They are excluding us from the entire city.”
Cogswell and the members of the Irish Queers carried signs with slogans such as, “Exclusion is not an Irish thing.”
“If you’re going to throw a bigoted parade, we’ll throw a better one,” said Cogswell. “We’ll show you how it’s really supposed to be done.”