I ventured back to my old neighborhood in Sunnyside, Queens to take in the annual “Parade for All” which I haven’t attended in recent years. I remember the parade when it first started roughly fifteen years ago and back then it was more of a street fair. It was really nice for what it was, but as we know today it has grown in scope and message.
I had the pleasure of meeting briefly with co-chairs Brendan Fay & Kathleen Walsh D'Arcy and found them to be very hospitable and really trying to get the message of inclusion for all folks who want to celebrate their Irish heritage. As most know there is a political and personal difference of views on many sides regarding the placement of LGBT and other organizations into the various Irish events around the City most notably the annual parade on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
It has grown to be a platform for the LGBT community to enjoy and celebrate their heritage and that is definitely the overall theme. Watching the parade in Sunnyside for me was a little different to process at first. I grew up attending and walking in the main parade most of my life and although it is technically run by a number of nonprofits, there is still an influence dictated by the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH). The Sunnyside parade presented a different “look” to St Patrick’s Day and when they say “parade for all” they mean it.
It started off with speeches from the two Grand Marshall’s Tom Duane and Terry McGovern who made their feelings known about their discontent for the organizers of the 5th Ave parade and how they feel shunned because of their sexual orientation and belief system. They also made poignant points about oppression in other parts of the world. A visit from Mayor DeBlasio, his Associates, and Council members from various parts of Queens and Manhattan were warmly welcomed by the crowd, and after all the political speeches, handshakes and photo opportunities the parade kicked off on Skillman Ave.
Very different from the 5th Ave parade you will find people of all faiths, beliefs and backgrounds participating in the Sunnyside parade. Famous Irish percussionist Brian Fleming, who has participated in the event from its inception, brought a few of his friends along to lead the musical festivities.
Many other like-minded groups participated and to give an idea of the diversity of participants they ranged from GAA Shannon Gaels representatives to H&R Block to a group asking you to vote for minimum wage increases. Niall O’Leary’s dance school and The Keltic Dream Irish Dancers, a group of 35 children from the Bronx both provided excellent dance performances drawing big cheers from the crowd.
While this all sounds wonderful I did encounter folks who had another view of the parade. While talking with various people I did become intrigued with a small population who felt the idea of celebrating “Irish heritage” was not being emphasized and it felt more like a statement of a political or business agenda more than everyone being “proud to be Irish." I was hearing feedback for example “What does H&R Block offering to do my taxes have to do with St Patrick’s Day and being Irish?” What I was drawing from these types of responses is although the overwhelming majority of folks believe in inclusion for all the focus should be celebrating your Irish heritage and not pushing some personal agenda or sales pitch and that set them back a bit. I felt it was a healthy debate worth pursuing and everyone has a right to their opinion. What I took away is that some compare the Sunnyside parade to the Manhattan parade and that in my opinion is difficult. Whether you agree or disagree the scope and theme of the Sunnyside parade is clearly defined on the committee’s website so there should be no misunderstanding of what to expect. Despite the few who had opposing views the overall majority of people I encountered felt the parade was a huge success and a wonderful thing for Sunnyside and Woodside.
Many after events took place and all the bars, restaurants, and businesses did well. I personally started my day at the Copper Kettle with three childhood friends Anthony and Fran Luzzi and Chris Murphy, took in the parade, had dinner in PJ Horgan’s (one the few remaining establishments from my childhood), and then met up again with Brian Fleming and Niall O’Leary for a night of music and dance at BAR43. A truly great day in my old neighborhood.
Generally speaking if you polled people about the Manhattan parade a majority would say the parade is about honoring the people who protect us - military, cops, firefighters, and first responders and everyone else is welcome to “walk with your county” and “be Irish”. Now we know that is not true because many other organizations also “walk” in the parade so the question holds to bare, “why are the LGBT and other organizations not allowed a place in the parade?”
I purposely waited a few weeks to write this article because I wanted to see what was going to shake out from the Manhattan parade and true to my suspicions two of the biggest sponsors – Heineken and Guinness pulled out because of LGBT argument. Throw in Mayor DeBlasio and the rest of City Council declining to participate and now the landscape has changed.
It’s not a matter of "if," but "when" the LGBT and other groups are going to get their place in the Manhattan parade. It won’t be a meeting of the minds and compromising for the good of all. They will get their place because of sponsors pulling out and the financial pressure will force the organizers to have no choice but comply and I wish that could be different. Exclusion is unacceptable in today’s world and groups working together would have been a nicer story for me to write. However when that day eventually comes I hope the LGBT and other groups understand and do their part in making St Patrick’s Day about being Irish and keep the politics and personal agendas out of it. Otherwise I fear they will encounter some of the opinions I experienced in Sunnyside, except on a grander stage and it will only hurt their cause. That will be their responsibility in having a place in the parade and let’s hope it’s used in a positive manner.
All the Best
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Tommy, love this piece, love the insights, the details included, the colorful and illustrative pix, and the willingness to present each perspective as you encounter it, without judgment! Bravo!
Tommy, I enjoyed your article and I respect your point of view, but sadly I think you are (I am sure unintentionally) perpetuating a misnomer that has been seized upon and repeated to the point of dogma: that members of the LGBT community are "barred" form the NYC parade. I have marched in the parade for forty years, at no time was any litmus test on orientation, religious affiliation, political affiliation etc applied nor did I see an individual barred.
The issue comes down to parade rules that are applied to everyone barring personal messages on banners, signs and pins. What many commentators fail to note that even though this i a parade celebrating the patron saint of the archdiocese of New York that even signs that promote Catholic causes such as pro-life are also banned and I have seen people attempting to carry same removed from the parade. The ultimate irony is that after years of the LGBT community fighting to be treated like "everyone else", certain elements of that community now want to be singled out for special treatment.
Lets, put all contentious issues aside for a second and think about this dispassionately: can you imagine what would happen if the NYC parade, one of the largest in the world, allowed everyone to bring their own sign and agenda on the day? It would be a mess as group after group tried to leverage the marketing potential, the point of the parade would certainly be lost.
The great thing about this and most other enlightened countries is that we allow different points of view and we can each see our heritage through its own lens. If some parade organizers want their parade to have a Mardi Gras feel to them (such as Dublin's and I say that without being demeaning, for them that message makes sense, the "immigrant centric" message of NYC jut wouldn't be appropriate) that's fine, if some want to keep the message of the day strictly on being Irish, of Irish descent or paying tribute to the contributions of the Irish and leave all other dimensions aside for the period of three hours that should be fine too.
If all parades had the same message and vibe, why would we need more than one? We are all in trouble when people begin to dictate what is and is not an appropriate expression of free speech whether they are attempting to dictate to the Sunnyside Parade or the NYC St. Patrick's Day day parade or any other lawfully constituted parade.
Hello Brendan, Thanks for the great response, this is excactly what I was hoping to achieve with my article. If you notice I ask a lot of open ended questions and make note that I "purposely waited to see what happens in Manhattan". This was done intentionally to spark a conversation with our members.
I couldn't agree more with your response and as a long time participant in the Manhattan parade I (like you) know that advertising personal affiliations or political agendas, etc are restricted from the parade. I like the point you made that it applies to all sides equally.
The challenge I faced with my research for this article is that the LGBT cause in general is a very volatile subject and people on both sides can let their emotions get out of control instead of having a rational conversation. In addition some of the propaganda that is put out hurts in general. Unfortunately in this case the saying is true "Its not what you say, its how you say it" . If you talk to one side they say " we're not allowed in the parade because of our sexual orientation". When I implied that is not true, that you are free to walk with your county, or if you're a cop or military person you can walk with them without discrimination I received a lot of negative feedback. They in so many words said they want nothing less than their own place in the parade stating LGBT. As we know and you confirmed in your response that things like this are banned. I also facetiously made the point "there's about 150,000 people who march in the parade, do mean to tell me not one of them is of an LGBT background?" Furthermore I don't remember having to fill out a survey stating whether I'm gay or straight to walk in the parade??
The other side made the same point you did in your piece. For years LGBT and similar groups have complained about not being "equals". Now when they are treated as equals they want have special preferences again? The point is " you can't have it both ways'. This was a big frustration point to some of the people I encountered in Sunnyside. I heard the term "they are hijacking" the parade. The implication is that the LGBT group doesn't want to celebrate "being Irish" rather its more about furthering their personal agenda. The point was also made that there is special "Gay Pride" parade every year for the LGBT where they can celebrate their lifestyle and its a wonderful thing; no one has a problem with this.
What disappoints me here Brendan is that the people screaming loudest really don't understand the purpose of the parade and its tradition. Sponsors pulling out are only doing this in fear of backlash on their sales. They are really not looking at the guidelines and following them. I mentioned in piece the LGBT have clear guidelines of how the Sunnyside parade was going to be run, so no one should be surprised at what you see. I have no problem with this. However why then when the Manhattan organizers state their guidelines now all of a sudden there is a problem? Food for thought
Thanks again for writing Brendan, I really enjoyed this. I hope you'll stay in touch and build further on this conversation and future posts..