By: Chuck Colbert*/ TRT Reporter—
BOSTON, Mass.—When Irish eyes are smiling, the world is bright and gay, or so go lyrics of the popular song. Except, historically, on St. Patrick’s Day in South Boston, where openly gay groups are still not permitted to participate.
For several years, the parade organizers—Allied War Veterans Council—emboldened by a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, have denied marching permission for LGBT and peace veterans groups as a matter of First Amendment, free-speech rights. However, serious efforts are underway to change that.
“This is the year we all should put pressure on politicians,” said Pat Scanlon, Vietnam veteran and coordinator of Veterans for Peace, Chapter 9, Smedley D. Butler Brigade, an organization banned from marching in the South Boston parade for several years.
Scanlon pointed to changing demographics of South Boston and a new mayor as hopeful signs the peace veterans contingent will be able to march, along with openly LGBT groups. Back in September 2013, Veterans for Peace applied to Allied War Veterans, but by December 9, 2013, when the peace-vet organization had not received a reply, Scanlon sent a follow up letter. [pullquote]”When Massachusetts is, in so many ways, a beacon of inclusion for the LGBTQ community, it is disappointing to see parade organizers continue to cultivate a climate of rejection and exclusion.” —Kara Coredini, MassEquality Director.[/pullquote]
“The exclusion of Veterans for Peace, the LGBT community, and other peace organizations, from participating [in the parade] should come to an end,” Scanlon wrote. “It is time that there be one parade that is open, inclusive and welcoming to any group wishing to celebrate this very special day. It is Saint Patrick’s Day, a celebration of the patron saint of Ireland and Saint Patrick was a man of peace.”
Scanlon’s letter pointed not only to changing attitudes toward LGBT people in society at large, but also to cultural and social changes within South Boston.
“Many members of the LGBT community currently live, work and worship” in the neighborhood, he wrote.
In fact, two parades have trekked through the streets of South Boston since 2010 when the peace veterans first applied but were rejected. Scanlon said parade organizers used not wanting the word “peace” connected to the word “veteran” as reason enough to ban the group from marching. Last year, when the Veterans for Peace organized the second march, which took place one hour after the main event and was separated by Boston city street sweepers, the parade had more than 2,000 participants. Those who marched with the St. Patrick’s Peace Parade included six bands, trolleys, duck boats, floats, and the like—all organized into eight separate divisions under the categories of veterans, peace, LGBT, religious, environmental, labor, political, social, and economic justice.
Born on St. Patrick’s Day, Scanlon, 66, a straight Irish American who grew up Catholic in Philadelphia and attended parochial schools for 19 years, explained his motivation.
“This is an injustice,” Scanlon said. “An injustice against one is an injustice against all, and in one of the most progressive cities in the country, if not the world, to have this injustice taking place should not be tolerable.”
The father of a gay son, Scanlon does not mince words in calling out the ban on LGBT groups. [pullquote]“It’s homophobic,” he said. “It’s exclusion. It’s hatred. That’s what all this is about.”[/pullquote]
“It’s homophobic,” he said, referring to the attitude of parade organizers. “It’s exclusion. It’s hatred. That’s what all this is about.”
In addition to applying to the Allied War Veterans Council, Scanlon said his parade group has also asked the City of Boston for its own parade permit with a 12 p.m. kick-off time, one hour before Allied War Veterans’ start time.
Michael Dowling, 59, a gay resident of South Boston for 35 years and president of the South Boston Association of Non-Profits, is taking another approach. He said the community-based non-profit association has applied to the Allied War Veterans, proposing “an inclusive unit called ‘We are South Boston.’” The application, he explained, contains “really strong, inclusive language, including LGBT language with signs that would identify participants in the parade.”
Dowling said he takes issue with Scanlon’s outsider approach.
“The efforts of Pat Scanlon have helped perpetuate the hardships of the neighborhood and how it is portrayed,” Dowling said.
He went on to explain why.
“Because when [Scanlon] calls the neighborhood bigoted and homophobic, he riles up those hatreds that are still there, and makes it more difficult for people to be out, and makes it more difficult for people to work here,” said Dowling. “So it sets us back.”
But Scanlon takes issue with Dowling’s suggestion of such name calling. The South Boston neighborhood is not the problem, said Scanlon, explaining, “The attitudes of the residents of South Boston have changed dramatically in the last 20 years.” It’s the Allied War Veterans who hold bigoted and homophobic attitudes, he said.
At the same time, both Scanlon and Dowling said they believe South Boston has indeed changed significantly in the last two decades.
“Everything in South Boston has changed,” said Scanlon. “The neighborhood has changed, the politics have changed, the culture has changed, and [Catholic] churches have closed. The only thing that has not changed is the attitude of the six guys who run the parade. That too will change.”
Dowling agreed with the changing demographics and attitudes, citing local civic groups that are inclusive of LGBT people, namely One Southie and The New Southie, both of which have Facebook pages, and the West Broadway Citizens group, which Dowling said consists predominantly of gay men who live on that thoroughfare. Dowling said South Boston Association of Non Profits is working with the neighborhood-based civic and social groups, among others, to gain permission to march.
Like Scanlon, Dowling is also seeking to gain support for their respective approaches from elected officials, including state Senator Linda Dorcena of the First Suffolk District and state Representative Nick Collins of the Fourth Suffolk District, both Democrats. South Boston falls within their respective legislative districts. Both Scanlon and Dowling have also contacted Boston’s new mayor, Martin J. Walsh, and District Two City Councilor Bill Linehan, a lifelong South Boston resident, in hopes that they can broker a deal or solution to the standoff. Linehan was also elected president of city council in early January. Scanlon has also written to the Boston Police Department and penned an open letter to residents of the city.
Dowling said he is hopeful that the neighborhood insider’s approach is the way out of the gay-ban situation, a way for the Allied War Veterans and everybody to move forward. Back in the early 90s when an openly gay group—The Irish American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston (GLIB)—marched in the parade, Dowling paid a steep price for supporting the gay group. Along the parade route, he handed out pink roses to gay, lesbian, and bisexual marchers. [pullquote]“Every window in my house was broken,” Dowling said.[/pullquote]
“Every window in my house was broken,” Dowling said.
He added, consequently, that he had every good reason “to beat up on the neighborhood.”
“But I have chosen to replace hatred of our community with service to that community,” Dowling explained.
A painter and noted artist, Dowling founded Medicine Wheels Production as a South Boston-based nonprofit organization in 2000. Its mission is “to transform communities from the inside out” through “the healing and transcendent power of public art.” Medicine Wheel’s signature event is on World AIDS Day. Another focus addresses youth drug abuse and teen suicide.
Neither Veterans for Peace nor South Boston Association of Non Profits have heard back yet from parade organizers. Both Dowling and Scanlon said they are preparing strategies if their applications are rejected. Undoubtedly, the issue will find its way to the office of Mayor Walsh, who told a reporter during the mayoral election last fall, “What needs to happen,” is a private “conversation” away from the media’s glare, with “organizers of the parade.”
“As mayor, I will sit down with them and work out a compromise so that people can feel like they can march in the parade,” Walsh explained. “This parade should be inclusive, and that goes for every other parade marching on public streets.”
Meanwhile, MassEquality, the statewide grassroots organization, has also applied to march.
“We will continue to apply every year until MassEquality is permitted to march,” said Kara S. Coredini, executive director.
Like the other two groups, MassEquality has not yet heard back from parade organizers on the status of its application. However, the parade is not among MassEquality’s highest priorities. [pullquote]Neither Veterans for Peace nor South Boston Association of Non Profits have heard back yet from parade organizers.[/pullquote]
“The LGBTQ community in Massachusetts faces many issues more urgent than the ability to participate in a parade—youth homelessness, bullying, anti-transgender discrimination, HIV/AIDS, elder abuse, and more,” Coredini explained. “But public rejection by an established cultural institution like the St. Patrick’s Day Parade is significant in that it’s emblematic of the more life-altering rejection our community members face every day. When Massachusetts is, in so many ways, a beacon of inclusion for the LGBTQ community, it is disappointing to see parade organizers continue to cultivate a climate of rejection and exclusion. At the heart of MassEquality’s work electing pro-LGBTQ champions and advancing pro-LGBTQ legislation is changing attitudes, and each day because of that work we come closer to the day when this parade will be opened to all.”
This year’s St. Patrick Day Parade is scheduled for Sunday, March 16.
*Chuck Colbert marched in the 1992 and 1993 South Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade as one of 25 participants in the Irish American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston.