Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Wednesday that he has been trying to broker a deal that would allow gay and lesbian groups to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade next month in South Boston, a move that would potentially end a controversy festering for two decades.
A gay veterans group sponsored by MassEquality plans to submit an application to participate, Walsh said. He marched as recently as last year as a state representative, but now — as mayor — he said he will boycott if gay groups continue to be excluded.
“Equality comes first,” Walsh, the son of Irish immigrants, said. “The fact that it’s 2014, I certainly hope we’re able to come to an understanding. It’s long overdue.”
Walsh’s support in the gay community played a pivotal role in last year’s mayor race, helping him gain traction in liberal neighborhoods beyond his Dorchester and South Boston base. In interviews, parade organizers scoffed at any suggestion of a compromise or opening the event to gay groups.
“No, definitely not,” said John “Wacko’’ Hurley, the longtime force behind the parade who won a unanimous 1995 Supreme Court victory sanctioning his right to exclude gay and lesbian groups. “Not when you have a 9-to-nothing decision in the Supreme Court of the United States. [Walsh is] not in a position to overturn that.”
Walsh met in his City Hall office with Hurley and parade organizer Philip J. Wuschke Jr. Walsh said the three spoke about the parade, the Supreme Court case, and the bloody civil rights battles in Northern Ireland between the Protestant majority and the Catholic minority.
“We had a nice conversation,” Walsh said. “We had a little Irish history lesson.”
Wuschke acknowledged there had been talks, but said the discussions were “no longer active” and he expected no change in policy. He maintained that the parade does not exclude individual gays and lesbians who march with other groups.
“We’re not bigots,” Wuschke said. “It is inclusive. It’s a day of celebrating. It’s celebrating the Irish and the military.”
But Walsh seemed resolute in his demand that MassEquality be admitted. South Boston has changed tremendously in the past two decades, he said, and popular support has shifted in favor of including everyone.
“If I march in that parade, I will be very happy,” Walsh said. “If I’m not marching in that parade, it will be unfortunate and it will be because of a couple of people who would not accept this application.”
Kara Coredini, executive director of MassEquality, declined through a spokesman to discuss the issue. The statewide organization’s mission is fighting discrimination against people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Last month, the group issued a press release that said its initial parade application had been rejected because of the Supreme Court ruling.
“It’s stunning that in 2014 a high-profile cultural institution like the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade would force . . . people to retreat back into the closet in order to participate,” Coredini said in the press release. “This is just another version of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ”
In threatening to boycott the parade, Walsh is following the precedent set by former mayor Thomas M. Menino, who had refused to march in the parade since 1995 because it excluded gay and lesbian groups. In an interview Wednesday, Walsh acknowledged that he marched in the parade last year before launching his bid for mayor.
“Marching as a state rep and celebrating my heritage is a little different,” Walsh said when asked why he is changing his position. “As mayor, I feel like I should use my influence. I feel the parade should be inclusive.”
Walsh’s steadfast support in the gay community dates to 2007, when he played a key role helping defeat an amendment to the state constitution that would have banned same-sex marriage. As an Irish Catholic legislator from Dorchester, Walsh transcended stereotypes by supporting gay marriage and helped bring conservative Democrats into the fold, said Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.
“We were going to lose,” Isaacson said. “His unwavering support made a huge difference.”
The St. Patrick’s Day parade is sponsored by the Allied War Veterans Council and scheduled for March 16. This year, two South Boston neighborhood groups applied to march in the parade to celebrate diversity and include openly gay members.
The groups initially said they received permission, but parade organizers said the applications were still pending. Neither group responded this week to inquiries seeking comment.
Walsh said he was actively working to get MassEquality accepted but conceded he had “no concrete answers yet.”
The issue might prove a tough balancing act, political analysts said.
“It’s very difficult for the mayor, because he has two strong constituencies that he cares deeply about,” said Jeffrey M. Berry, a Tufts University political scientist. “But I think there’s more downside by offending gays and participating in a parade that’s not inclusive than there is in disappointing the Irish community.”
Hurley, the parade organizer, had little sympathy for Walsh’s position.
“That goes back to the old adage: ‘You can’t please everybody,’ ” Hurley said. “But you have to follow rules. [Walsh] should know that.”
Walsh disagreed and said his decision to boycott in the name of equality would be easy.
“I’m not in a tough spot,” Walsh said.