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Adrian Walker

Edging closer to acceptance in South Boston

Michael Dowling, an arts activist in South Boston, walked into a community breakfast Saturday, and was a bit taken aback — in a good way — by what he encountered.

After a Globe story on a gay activists’ group being invited to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, the reaction of the South Boston Citizens’ Association was near-unanimous enthusiasm.

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“People have a sense that enough is enough,” he said. “This community wants to heal.’’

It didn’t take long for the good feelings to be tempered: The invited group, MassEquality, has yet to accept the invitation, which comes with strings attached. In essence, its members have been told they would have to refrain from using signs or slogans advocating for gay equality. They can march under their name as long as nothing indicates they are gay. Not surprisingly, many find those conditions unacceptable.

Over the course of the weekend, what at first seemed like a done deal has become substantially more provisional. Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who has invested significant political capital in opening up the parade, insisted Sunday that he expects a deal acceptable to all eventually will be reached.

“The time has come that we’re able to allow people who are gay to march in the parade, and the time has come for people in Southie who are supportive of this to lose that cloud they’ve been under for 20 years,” Walsh said in a telephone interview. “I’ve heard from people saying, ‘I’m glad you stood up.’ ”

Dowling has fought the fight against homophobia in Southie for years. As an openly gay new resident in the 1980s, he was regularly harassed, he says. In the 1990s, as he became active in the fight against the scourge of heroin overdoses, he began to find a measure of acceptance from his neighbors. Now he’s a neighborhood fixture, the founder of a great nonprofit called Medicine Wheel Productions that uses immersion in the arts to bring together young people from across the city.

And he’s landed squarely in the middle of the fight to finally break the barrier against gays and lesbians marching in the parade. He is part of an organization of nonprofit activists who have applied to march under the banner of community inclusion, in a general sense. While not activists for gay rights specifically, their application explicitly states that the group will include members who are openly gay and lesbian. After nearly a year of quiet negotiation with the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council, he expects their application to be approved.

He expressed strong sympathy for the refusal of MassEquality to accept being silenced, while defending the idea of a group marching in support of racial and ethnic understanding. They differ in emphasis.

“We’re trying to have a difficult dialogue with people and meet them where they live,” he said. “We have designed really beautiful banners about inclusion. I think it’s more political for MassEquality.”

Mayor Walsh reiterated that he will not march in the parade if MassEquality is not involved. But while he could have simply refused to march, he has gone a step further by actively working to end the ban altogether. His predecessor, Tom Menino, refused to march after gays were banned, but never held any illusions that he could successfully demand their inclusion. Menino was an outsider in South Boston, and was perfectly fine with that. Walsh, who feels connected to it personally and politically, has vowed for months to end the ban. So now he owns the outcome of this fight.

The parade will change — because the bigotry it symbolizes is dear to so few, and a burden to so many. Dowling insists that the neighborhood has already changed. The only question is how long it will take the parade to catch up to reality.

“Each of us should claim the community, each of us should claim who we are and give the gift of who we are,” Dowling said. “In revelation, there’s no turning back.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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