For Irish L.G.B.T.Q. New Yorkers, It’s Been a Long Way to Staten Island

— Activists like Brendan Fay have campaigned for decades to make St. Patrick’s Day festivities open to L.G.B.T.Q. groups. A new parade in Staten Island on Sunday is their final achievement.

Brendan Fay, left, has fought for more inclusive St. Patrick’s Day parades for decades. His husband, Tom Moulton, right, readied the sash Mr. Fay planned to wear to the Staten Island parade this Sunday.

By Liam Stack

This year, for the first time, every New York City borough will host a St. Patrick’s Day Parade that allows L.G.B.T.Q. groups, bringing a decades-long conflict to an end.

That milestone will be celebrated on Sunday with a new parade on Staten Island, part of a deal brokered by Mayor Eric Adams. It’s the result of decades of work by activists like Brendan Fay, an indefatigable Irish immigrant who began lobbying for the inclusion of gay marchers 34 years ago.

“There has been a huge cultural transformation that I have lived through from 1990 until today,” Mr. Fay, 65, said this week as he prepared to march in the Staten Island parade.

Still, he said, “we had no idea it would take so long.”

The new parade quickly overshadowed the borough’s traditional march, held on March 3, which officials said they believed to be the only one left in the United States that bans gay marchers. Most of New York’s elected officials, who plan to march on Sunday, have boycotted the borough’s original parade for years.

The organizers of the original parade, a private group, could not be reached for comment, but they have previously stated that they did not want the parade to contradict teachings of the Catholic Church or be used to promote “political or sexual identification agendas.”

In 2018, Larry Cummings, the main organizer of the parade, told The Irish Voice, a diaspora newspaper in New York City, “Our parade is for Irish heritage and culture.”

When Mr. Fay moved to the United States from Ireland in 1984, few if any St. Patrick’s Day parades welcomed L.G.B.T.Q. organizations. Mr. Fay was a Catholic school religion teacher, and had thought he would spend his life working for the church.

But in 1991, Mr. Fay joined a group of gay marchers in Manhattan whose inclusion in the Fifth Avenue parade had been negotiated by the mayor at the time, David Dinkins. It went very badly: Both the mayor and the marchers were booed for more than 40 blocks, and they were pelted with beer bottles and slurs. Some spectators chanted “AIDS!” as they passed.

After the parade, Mr. Dinkins likened it to “marching in Birmingham, Alabama,” during the civil rights movement. Gay groups were banned from the parade the next year on the grounds that their presence was inappropriate for a celebration of a Catholic saint.

In a black-and-white photo, Brendan Fay, wearing a dark vest and white jeans, holds hands with two others as they twirl in a circle. Beyond them are police barriers and people marching in a parade.
Brendan Fay, center, dances to Irish music as he protests the exclusion of gay people from Staten Island’s parade in 1993.

Following news coverage of the event, Mr. Fay was fired from his job, which imperiled his visa status. But he soon began working at the Metropolitan Community Church, a gay church in Midtown, and turned his life to activism on behalf of AIDS patients, L.G.B.T.Q. people and immigrants.

“I come out of a spirit of Catholic social justice activism,” he said. “People say, ‘When did you become an activist?’ And it goes back to nuns and priests and committed lay people in Ireland, protesting for the people of El Salvador and against apartheid.”

But the St. Patrick’s Day Parade always loomed large, not just as a street festival but as a symbol for something more.

“At the heart of the parade issue is a deeper issue of human belonging,” Mr. Fay said. Exclusion from the parade mirrored the silences that we lived with most of our lives — the wonder if you could safely hold hands on your neighborhood street, if you could be yourself at your place of employment or with your family.”

While gay activists fought for decades to be included in St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the United States, their participation in events in Ireland was largely uncontroversial. And as Irish America became more politically conservative, Ireland was moving rapidly in the opposite direction.

In 2015, the year the New York City parade first allowed gay marchers, Ireland became the first country in the world to enact same-sex marriage by popular vote.

The next year, Mr. Fay was given an award for his activism by Michael D. Higgins, the president of Ireland. In 2017, he was invited to Ireland to be the grand marshal of the parade in Drogheda, “the town I fled from in 1984,” he said. And months later, a 38-year-old biracial gay man, Leo Varadkar, became Ireland’s prime minister.

Throughout the 1990s, Mr. Fay worked with the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, and then formed his own group, the Lavender and Green Alliance, in 1994, to lobby for gay inclusion in the city’s main parade on Fifth Avenue and in smaller parades in the other boroughs.

Mr. Fay and other protesters were arrested so many times that when police officers saw him at a parade, “they would sometimes ask me if I was going to be their guest for another St. Patrick’s Day,” he said.

The tipping point came in 1999. Mr. Fay was arrested three times: at the Fifth Avenue parade, at the Bronx parade and at the Brooklyn parade. After years of campaigning, the activists had little to show for it except an arrest record.

A group of men wearing white and green sashes, including Brendan Fay, who has a goatee, are crowded into a light blue van by police officers.
In 1999, members of the Lavender and Green Alliance, including Brendan Fay, center, were arrested after attempting to march in a St. Patricks Day parade in Brooklyn.

And then Mr. Fay had an idea: Why not throw their own parade?

Working with friends in Queens, he cobbled together St. Pat’s for All, an event with a homespun spirit that began in 2000.

“When we were doing the parade we asked, ‘What does it mean to be Irish?’” he said.

Their answer to that question was a parade where local parish groups and Irish drag queens would march beside N.A.A.C.P. members holding banners about Frederick Douglass’s travels to 19th-century Ireland.

But St. Pat’s for All became a sensation even before its very first bagpipe blared because of a surprising phone call Mr. Fay received from the White House. It was an aide to Hillary Clinton, who at the time was preparing to run for the United States Senate from New York.

She wanted to march in this new parade she had heard was coming to Queens. Could Mr. Fay accommodate that?

“They asked me about the stage and the sound system and all of that, and we had none of it planned,” Mr. Fay said. “But she came in March 2000, and the media came, and that was that.”

St. Pat’s for All is still held every year in Sunnyside and Woodside, but its spirit has now spread to almost every parade in the New York area.

And as Mr. Fay marches on Sunday in Staten Island, the last borough to extend a welcome to all, he will be thinking of friends and parade fixtures who did not live long enough to see this day: Father Mychal Judge, who died in the Sept. 11 attacks; the activist Tarlach MacNiallais, who died of coronavirus in 2020; and the author Malachy McCourt, who died on Monday at age 92.

“I don’t take anything for granted — L.G.B.T. people take nothing for granted when it comes to being welcomed as part of your community,” he said. “I never thought, of course, that a parade would become so much of my life, but it did.”

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