know your history

The first NYC St. Patrick’s Day parade, in 1762, was organized by Irish Protestants as a public protest to fight widespread discrimination against Irish people.

Irish queers first started coming out as a movement in the 1980s, when writer Joni Crone stunned Ireland by outing herself on the Late Late Show.

The Irish Lesbian & Gay Organization was started in 1990 by a group of queer Irish immigrants in New York. A few friends placed an ad in an Irish American newspaper, trying to find Irish queer community in a way that hadn’t been available in closeted Ireland. They started meeting, breaking down their isolation and silence as Irish queers, and soon had the idea of coming out in the most public Irish American venue there is: the St. Patrick’s Day parade…

(The queer scene in Ireland itself has changed dramatically since then – queers are recognized and protected by the government (in some ways), and there’s a thriving social scene. Over the last decade, many Irish queers who emigrated to the US in order to live openly as queers, have moved back to Ireland.)

For 14 years, the Ancient Order of Hibernians – an all-male organization of practicing Catholics, who hold the parade in trust for the Irish community – have refused Irish LGBT groups entry into the St. Patrick’s parade. At first, the AOH tried to cloak their homophobia in bureaucracy, claiming that ILGO was “on a waiting list” and that when the time came, Irish queers would march like any other group. In the course of several lawsuits, though, the AOH admitted that the waiting list was just a ruse, and that queers would never march in “their” parade.

In 1991, a division of the AOH invited ILGO to march with them in the parade. Mayor Dinkins joined the contingent. Spectators and other marchers showered ILGO, Mayor Dinkins and AOH Division 7 with abuse and garbage. Mayor Dinkins compared the experience to walking in civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama. The following year, Division 7 were physically ejected from the parade.

In fighting our attempt to take part to take part in the Irish community’s single largest event, the AOH has tossed away over 2 centuries of tradition, and corrupted its purpose. In opposing ILGO, an AOH lawyer proudly proclaimed in court that the AOH is “as good as the Klan.” The parade is no longer the well-known public celebration of Irish pride in our shared history and culture.

Instead, the AOH has redefined the St. Patrick’s parade as a demonstration of homophobia. In 1993, an AOH lawyer told Judge Duffy that the parade’s “message is one of exclusion,” and AOH representatives told a NY Times reporter that the parade would be “a celebration of the victory of Catholic values over homosexuals.”

The AOH are hardly on the cutting edge of liberation. The parade has also historically excluded people of color, women and people in wheelchairs -- until resistance forced the AOH to change those policies. In the early 1980s, Irish people protesting the British government’s policy of criminalizing political protesters in Ireland were attacked and forcibly removed from the parade. In 1991, the AOH physically ejected supporters of political prisoner Joe Doherty for wearing sashes from the campaign to free him. Members of the Bloody Sunday campaign (attempting to draw attention to the 13 unarmed civilians killed at a civil rights protest in Northern Ireland) were banned from participating. Activists opposing the imprisonment of an activist’s daughter were thrown out for handing out roses, (in remembrance of her name, Roisín) to parade participants.

There are no new stories, only ongoing struggles. Irish queers continue in a long line of fighting for civil rights, justice and equality, and we will continue until we defeat the Religious Right attempt to hijack our community and control our identities. The St. Patrick’s Day parade – the most public expression of the Irish community in America – is the right place exactly to stage our struggle.


(read an article about irish queers & st. patrick from 1998, in the Irish Times)