The continued exclusion of gay and lesbian groups from the St. Patrick’s Day veterans’ parade in South Boston feels increasingly out of place in an evolving city. Both the city and the neighborhood have changed dramatically since the bitter wars over the parade in the ’90s. Yet the battle lines remain as frozen as ever.
This year, though, the city has a rare opportunity to help thaw tensions. On Wednesday, a federal judge ruled that the city is not required to run street sweepers between the main parade and a subsequent alternative parade that allows gay groups to march. The arrival of the sweepers may send an inadvertent signal to the crowd after the first parade that it’s time to go home. So the city should break with recent practice and run the sweepers only after both parades are over. It would be a small step, but by removing a barrier between the two groups, the city could promote the gradual healing of what, for too many Bostonians, still feels like an open wound.
The main parade, which wends through South Boston before thousands of cheering onlookers, is organized by the Allied War Veterans Council. It is an important cultural institution. But the council went all the way to the Supreme Court to win permission in 1995 to exclude gay groups, arguing successfully that it had a First Amendment right to control the message of the parade.
To many in South Boston, the effort by gay groups to march felt like a political gesture to hijack attention from an event devoted to veterans, and tapped into broader anxieties about change being imposed on Southie from outside. But to gays and lesbians, many of whom have proudly served in the military, exclusion from Boston’s marquee St. Patrick’s Day celebration felt like an unmistakable sign of discrimination.
Another group, Veterans for Peace, now holds a smaller parade along the same route. Theirs is open to gay groups. Under a previous court order, the alternative parade must start a mile behind the main parade. In past years, the city has interpreted the court order to mean that it has to run street-sweeping machines. The organizers of the alternative parade argue the sweepers scare away spectators and send a misleading message that the day’s festivities are over.
Now, though, Magistrate Judge Robert B. Collings has clarified that deploying the street sweepers is optional. Maybe it will make no difference whether the sweepers run. But maybe without them, a few more spectators will stick around to watch the second parade. Maybe the distinction between the two will start to look and feel a little more artificial. Maybe it will provide a way forward that doesn’t require anyone to feel like they’ve “lost.” And maybe an end to a needlessly polarizing drama that has already pitted Bostonians against each other for too long will come a step closer.