Organizers of South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day parade have rescinded their invitation to a gay rights organization to march and cut off negotiations to end a longstanding ban on gay groups, marking another twist in a controversy that appeared just days ago to be on the verge of compromise.
Parade organizer Philip J. Wuschke Jr. said Tuesday that discussions with MassEquality had ceased and that the gay advocacy group would be prohibited from participating. The decision represented an abrupt change in tone after days of negotiations.
But Tuesday night, Mayor Martin J. Walsh said negotiations continued, and he remained optimistic a deal was within reach.
“I’m hopeful those discussions will be positive and we’ll be able to make an announcement,” Walsh told reporters at an appearance in downtown Boston. “I’d really like to be able to march in the parade a week from Sunday. I’m going to hold out hope until the very end. If [MassEquality is] not in the parade, I will probably not be marching.”
At the urging of Walsh, parade organizers broke longstanding precedent and invited MassEquality to participate, but with a significant caveat. Marchers would be barred from wearing T-shirts or holding signs that included the word gay or other references to sexual orientation.
“We gave them what we figured was reasonable,” Wuschke said Tuesday afternoon in a telephone interview. “They wanted it all.”
The parade’s sponsor, the Allied War Veterans Council, issued a press release accusing MassEquality of lying on its application by “using a ploy to enter this parade under false pretenses,” saying it was not a legitimate veterans group. MassEquality’s executive director Kara S. Coredini did not return phone messages seeking comment.
Gay rights advocates urged patience and expressed resolute support for the new mayor.
“I would say that it’s not over until the parade starts,” said Sue O’Connell, co-publisher of Bay Windows, New England’s largest newspaper serving the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community. “Mayor Walsh is committed to really trying to negotiate this. . . . It’s something he ran on.”
Although it is a private parade, the event relies on public resources. In 2013, the city spent more than $315,000 on police overtime for the parade and setting up barricades the day before. The city also incurred costs to clean streets, but police are the most significant expense, city officials said. A spokeswoman for Walsh said parade organizers do not reimburse the city for police costs and do not pay a fee for a parade permit, which was issued Jan. 28 by the Transportation Department.
On Tuesday night, Walsh did not seemed inclined to use financial pressure to force parade organizers to include gay groups.
“We have to make sure . . . that all the residents of Boston are safe,” Walsh said. “During that parade, a million people come into South Boston.”
The controversy over the parade ignited in 1992, when the Allied War Veterans rejected an application to march from the Irish American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston. The group had applied to show solidarity with an organization rejected from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City, court records show.
In Boston, the group known by the acronym GLIB won a state court order and marched “ ‘uneventfully’ among that year’s 10,000 participants and 750,000 spectators,” according to legal records.
But parade organizers pressed their case, ultimately landing in the US Supreme Court, which handed the parade organizers a landmark unanimous victory. The court ruled in 1995 that although the parade marched on public streets, it was a privately organized event protected by the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. A parade is a form of expression, the court ruled, and the government could not interfere, even to prevent discrimination against gays and lesbians or any other group.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino boycotted the parade because it barred gays and lesbians. Organizers say they never invited Menino to participate. Walsh marched in the parade as a legislator, but as the city’s new mayor has vowed to use his influence to end the ban.
In their press release Monday, parade organizers said that they had been misled by MassEquality, which had applied to march on behalf of 20 veterans, Walsh, and other politicians. The application came from an affiliate of MassEquality called LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender] Veterans of Equality. “We were unable to find any evidence of LGBT Veterans for Equality that would confirm them as a recognized veterans organization,” organizers said in the statement posted on their website. “It is our belief that the application submitted to us by LGBT Veterans for Equality was a ploy by them to enter this parade under false pretenses and is hereby denied.”
At a meeting in the mayor’s office Sunday night, parade organizers said, it became clear that MassEquality did not have 20 veterans who wanted to march in the parade. Instead, they presented one “supposed veteran” and a group of other marchers carrying rainbow flags, parade organizers said.
“When asked about a color guard, their (lone) veteran replied that he wasn’t sure he could supply any more veterans willing to march,” the statement said.
One gay advocacy group rejected the argument that there were not enough gay veterans in the contingent to march. “It doesn’t matter how many people want to participate,” said Sylvain Bruni, president of Boston Pride. “If there is one LGBT person who wants to march in the parade, they should be able to march in the parade. To me, that’s beside the point.”
Parade organizers said MassEquality’s application had been “conditionally approved” with the understanding that 20 veterans could march so long as they did not hold signs or wear T-shirts that bore the word gay or other references to sexual orientation. The parade has a written code of conduct that prohibits references to sexual orientation.
“To our surprise, the offer [to march] was rejected by MassEquality’s representative Kara Coredini,” organizers said in the press release. “Her rejection was based on the fact that we would not allow LGBT veterans to identify themselves as openly gay by means of signage and T-shirts identifying them as LGBT veterans. This clearly violates our code of conduct.”