Gay rights advocates Saturday criticized a proposal to allow a gay rights group to march in the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade as long as they avoid explicit displays of gay pride, while some South Boston residents praised the invitation as a breakthrough.
After discussions with Mayor Martin J. Walsh, parade organizers agreed to invite the group MassEquality to march in the annual parade for the first time if marchers refrained from wearing T-shirts or holding signs that refer to sexual orientation.
That drew the ire of many gay rights supporters, who denounced the restrictions as offensive.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people I have talked to find this deal totally unacceptable,” said Sylvain Bruni, president of Boston Pride. “It would be putting people back in the closet.”
Bruni said he was initially pleased that the group would be able to participate in the parade but that his “heart sank” when he learned about the conditions.
“These conditions amount to ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ ” he said.
On Saturday, Bruni urged MassEquality not to accept the invitation under the conditions proposed by the organizers of the parade, the Allied War Veterans Council.
“Our community has battled for almost 45 years to gain recognition, acceptance, and visibility,” Bruni wrote. “We cannot accept a request to go back into the closet for the sake of marching in the South Boston Parade.”
MassEquality issued a statement saying it has yet to have any direct discussion with parade organizers and said no deal had been reached.
“The fact that parade organizers are willing to have a conversation with MassEquality is an important part of ongoing public dialogue about LGBT people and the parade,” Kara Coredini, the group’s executive director, said in the statement. “But at this point, it’s still just a conversation. MassEquality has not accepted any invitation to march, and will only consider accepting an invitation that allows LGBT people to march openly.”
Walsh and US Representative Stephen Lynch, Democrat of South Boston, met with parade organizers Saturday. The mayor called the meeting “promising” and said there would be another one.
“I’m hoping that will come to some good resolution,” he told the Globe at a Chinese new year banquet Saturday night.
But if an agreement could not be reached, Walsh said, he would not participate in the parade.
“If everything doesn’t work out, I mean if the gay community isn’t marching, I’m not marching,” he said. “I think everyone just needs to take a breath and it’s a process. I think we’ll be fine.”
Walsh said he was “very confident that we’ll be able to handle things and work things out and people will be very pleased.”
Earlier in the day, he said he did not think the restrictions proposed for the MassEquality marchers were a deal breaker.
Lynch could not be reached for comment.
John Hurley, a longtime parade organizer, said in a phone interview that his meeting with Walsh and Lynch was friendly, but that no significant agreement was reached.
Hurley said he didn’t “make any rules” regarding the group’s participation, but said organizers maintained the right to run the parade as they saw fit.
“We are not being dictated to by anyone,” he said.
In South Boston, some residents said allowing the gay rights group to march was a sign of progress that was long overdue. “Society is evolving,” said Dorothy Morris, who grew up in South Boston and lives in Quincy. “I’m a Catholic. I’m Irish. You can’t hold it back.”
The restrictions on the group were understandable, she said, considering how long it took to get to this point.
“I think it’s wise at this juncture,” she said. “It’s just a first step. It’s a big, big, big step.”
Arline Isaacson, cochair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, said that while the conditions had prompted widespread criticism in the gay community, she was confident Walsh was pushing for a “much better arrangement.”
“Marty didn’t support ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ in the military, and he’s not going to support it here,” she said. “I have faith that if an agreement can be found, he’ll find it.”
The Catholic Action League, meanwhile, condemned the decision to invite MassEquality, saying it represented a “cowardly abandonment of longstanding principles” and a “disgraceful surrender to political pressure.”
In the 1990s, after court battles broke out over whether a gay Irish group could participate in the parade, Hurley took the case to the Supreme Court, which ruled that organizers of a private parade could exclude gay and lesbian groups.
In recent years, members of Veterans for Peace have marched in their own parade a mile behind the main event and featured many LGBT rights groups. Parade organizers say that the event celebrates Irish culture and honors military veterans, and that protest groups of any kinds are prohibited.
Pat Scanlon, coordinator for the group in Greater Boston, said his parade will continue to welcome gay rights groups “for who they are.”
“I applaud the effort, but I think it’s clearly not enough,” he said. “We really think the city should take back the parade.”
Grace Sterling Stowell, executive director of the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Youth, said it would be unfortunate if “family friendly messages of equality and acceptance for LGBT people” would be considered inappropriate.
“I hope that the organizers will do the right thing by lifting this unnecessary restriction and allowing LGBT organizations full participation in the parade,” she said.
Michael Allen, who grew up in South Boston, said all veterans should be able to march but no one should be able to make a statement about their sexuality in the parade.
“The fact that they went out and fought for our country, I’d applaud them whether they’re gay or straight,” said Allen. “Their sexual preference has nothing to do with it, and I don’t see why they’re making it an issue.”
Jimmy Wool, 59, who drives in the parade with the Sheet Metal Workers Tin Man float, said it didn’t bother him at all if the group marched and he thinks there should be no restrictions.
“We’re all Catholics, too. It’s like, whatever. We’re all God’s children,” he said.
“We’ve gotten more tolerant as we’ve gotten older,” one of his friends chimed in.
The fact that Walsh brokered the deal in the first place, said Wool, was impressive.
“He’s gonna do a good job as mayor,” said Wool. “He’s got the nerve to take on the big issues.”