It was heralded as a historic meeting: Organizers of South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day parade sat across a table from leaders from the gay community. They came together Sunday night in the office of Mayor Martin J. Walsh, but on Monday negotiations continued because the two sides had been unable to reach an agreement that would allow a group of gay veterans to march.
Parade organizers have objected to the group’s wearing T-shirts or holding signs that include the word gay or refer to sexual orientation because they say it does not fit with the parade’s Irish and military themes. The suggestion that the group march without identifying itself as gay sparked uproar in the gay community, where the prohibition has been compared to “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the US military policy repealed in 2010.
The push to end the two-decade ban on gay groups has been led by Walsh, who held an hourlong meeting in City Hall with parade organizers, gay community leaders, and US Representative Stephen F. Lynch of South Boston. The discussion focused in part on a way for gay marchers to be able to identify themselves in a manner acceptable to organizers, perhaps with a rainbow or other symbol.
“We want to enable LGBT people to march openly in the parade,” said MassEquality’s executive director Kara S. Coredini, using the acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. “The conversations we are having are figuring out how LGBT people are going to be able to identify themselves as LGBT people.”
Two decades ago, parade organizers took their fight to exclude gay groups to the US Supreme Court. The court ruled unanimously in 1995 that the First Amendment right to freedom of speech allowed organizers of a private parade to exclude gays and lesbians or any other groups. Walsh marched in the parade as a state representative, but as the city’s new mayor has vowed to use his influence to end the ban.
Parade organizers said their concessions have had repercussions. A band from a small central Massachusetts school that had participated in the parade for more than two decades threatened to pull out if MassEquality is allowed to march. Other bands have called organizers inquiring whether gay groups will participate.
“I think we’ve given our share; we’ve compromised,” Tim Duross, one of the parade coordinators, said Monday. “I think they need to compromise a little bit, too.”
Still, both sides remained optimistic.
“I really applaud the parade organizers for coming to the table with us to have this conversation,” Coredini said. “They are under a lot of pressure from their constituency; we’re under a lot of pressure from our constituency. . . . Where we land, I can’t predict.”
Walsh hailed the Sunday night meeting in his office as a breakthrough and said he remained encouraged that a deal could be struck in time for the March 16 parade.
“It was a very positive discussion,” Walsh said Monday. “It was great to have everybody face to face. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to announce something in the next couple of days.”
The band threatening to boycott the parade is from Immaculate Heart of Mary School in the town of Harvard. The principal, Brother Thomas Dalton, sent a press release to news outlets saying the school was pulling its band and float because it “does not condone and will not appear to condone the homosexual lifestyle.”
Similar angst could be felt on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum.
“There’s a lot of tumult in the gay community,” said Arline Isaacson, a champion of same-sex marriage and lobbyist for the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. “There’s been a lot of ire from the LGBT community about the compromise from the other day. The gag order. I’ve been getting e-mails and phone calls from people sayings it’s offensive, it’s untenable, it’s analogous to ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ”
In South Boston along the parade route, many residents said they supported the invitation to gay rights groups and praised the mayor for pressing the issue. Irish native Aedeen Twomey said the parade was a community celebration. “I believe it’s everyone’s right to be in the parade,” Twomey said.
Walking along West Broadway, Mallory Aquila said the parade needs to adapt to the times and allow everyone to participate. “It’s 2014,” Aquila said. “It’s hard to believe we’re still having this conversation.”
Patrick O’Malley, 68, called the parade’s exclusion of gay advocacy groups “a disgrace.”
“They’re Americans; they have every right,” O’Malley said. “For crying out loud.”
Others remained staunchly against including gay groups, saying the parade was not the place for advocacy. One woman who declined to give her name described the parade as a family-oriented event that has nothing to do with sexual orientation. “What your preference is shouldn’t be out in the street,” the woman said. “It belongs in your bedroom.”
In recent years, an alternative parade has followed the traditional marchers. The second parade is spearheaded by the organization Veterans for Peace and has included gay groups. On Monday, Veterans for Peace announced one of its grand marshals would be Carlos Arredondo, the man with the trademark cowboy hat who became famous in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. Photographers captured images of him rushing a victim to an ambulance.
“Boston Strong means all of us uniting together, whether at a tragedy or against bigotry and exclusion, or the need for peace,” Arredondo said in a statement. “We should all come together, combine the two parades into one big parade and allow everyone, straight, gay, peace, old, and young to all participate together celebrating St. Patrick.”