BOSTON — Boston Mayor Martin Walsh is threatening to boycott the St. Patrick’s Day parade unless organizers allow a group of gay military veterans to march, joining New York’s mayor in protesting parade policies on gay groups.
Walsh, the son of Irish immigrants, said Thursday he’s been trying to broker a deal with the city’s parade organizers to allow a gay veterans group sponsored by MassEquality to march in this year’s parade. He said allowing gay groups to participate is long overdue.
“It’s 2014 — it’s far beyond the time where we should be even having this discussion because they’re veterans who fought for this country just like any other veteran,” Walsh said.
“I made a commitment during the campaign … that I would fight for equality and that’s what this is all about.”
But parade planners appeared unwilling to budge.
Lead parade organizer Philip Wuschke Jr. said gay people are not prohibited from marching with other groups. But he said organizers do not want the parade to turn into a demonstration for a particular group.
“The theme of the parade is St. Patrick’s Day. It is not a sexually oriented parade,” he said. “All we want to do is have a happy parade. The parade is a day of celebration, not demonstration.”
In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he will skip the nation’s largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in Manhattan because participants are not allowed to carry signs or banners identifying themselves as gay.
“I will be participating in a number of other events to honor the Irish heritage of this city,” de Blasio said during a press conference earlier this month. “But I simply disagree with the organizers of that parade.”
The parade dates from 1762, more than a century before the five boroughs linked to form modern New York City. The traditional event draws more than 1 million people every year to watch about 200,000 participants, including marching bands and thousands of uniformed city workers. It has long been a mandatory stop on the city’s political trail.
Since the 1990s, the event’s ban on pro-gay signs has sparked protests and lawsuits and led to the creation of an alternative, gay-friendly St. Patrick’s Day parade in Queens. In recent years, some elected officials — including de Blasio when he was a public advocate — attended the alternative parade and boycotted the traditional parade.
Michael Bloomberg, de Blasio’s predecessor, was a staunch supporter of same-sex marriage rights, but still marched in the traditional parade all 12 years he was in office.
New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton was asked Thursday at an unrelated press conference in Manhattan if he planned to march in the parade and confirmed that he was. He did not elaborate.
Judges have said the private organizers of New York’s parade have a First Amendment right to choose participants in their event. The organizers have ruled that some groups, such as colleges or civic organizations, can identify themselves, but LGBT groups cannot.
The Boston parade, sponsored by the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council, has had a long and torturous history on the question of whether gay groups can march.
State courts forced the sponsors to allow the Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston to march in the parade in 1992 and 1993. In 1994, the sponsors canceled the parade rather than allow the group to participate.
In 1995, the sponsors made participation by invitation only and said the parade would commemorate the role of traditional families in Irish history and protest the earlier court rulings. But several months later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Massachusetts courts had previously violated the parade sponsors’ First Amendment rights when they forced them to allow the gay group to participate.
Walsh’s predecessor, Mayor Tom Menino, boycotted the parade after the Supreme Court ruling.
The parade has traditionally honored Irish-Americans and also celebrates “Evacuation Day,” George Washington’s victory that forced British troops out of Boston in 1776.
In Savannah, Ga., where Irish immigrants and their descendants have been celebrating St. Patrick’s Day for 190 years, openly gay groups have long been absent from the city’s parade.
Local gay business leaders began lobbying for a slot in the parade in the 1990s, but were told by the private committee that organizes the parade that its applications were denied because they were “pushing a political agenda,” said Savannah gay rights activist Kevin Clark.
Clark said the group stopped applying about 10 years ago, deciding that issues such as domestic partner benefits and gay marriage were more important.
“In the big scheme of things, participating in a St. Patrick’s Day parade just doesn’t rise to the level of being worth exerting a lot of energy,” Clark said.