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YVONNE ABRAHAM

No marching a fine line now in South Boston

No matter what happens at today’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, we have seen some serious progress here.

The weeks-long saga of summits and recriminations between parade organizers and the gay activists they have excluded for two decades has been painful to watch. Until the last minute, Mayor Marty Walsh was trying to bring MassEquality and the Allied War Veterans to an agreement. At this writing, Walsh was seeking a way for at least some gay veterans to march with him.

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It has been a mess, but it hasn’t been for naught, thanks to Walsh.

He’s the one who turned an empty annual ritual into an actual issue. Every year, MassEquality asks to march and parade sponsors exercise their constitutional right to say no. People roll their eyes, lament the fact that nothing has changed, and move on. But this year, after MassEquality’s usual rejection, Walsh reached out to them, telling them he wanted this year to be different, and offering to broker an agreement so that openly gay veterans could finally march.

Walsh had relied on both gay rights supporters and Southie residents during his campaign. Now, a couple of months into his administration, he faced the prospect of choosing between them. He wanted to march, as he has most years, but made it clear as a candidate that he would do so only if openly gay participants were welcome.

“It’s 2014,” he said, in a phone call from Washington Friday. “We should be far beyond this. We shouldn’t even be discussing this right now.”

Even organizers appear to have acknowledged the changing times: This year, as my colleague Andrew Ryan reported, they are allowing two local groups with gay members to step right up to the line, wearing scarves decorated with rainbows and equal signs — as long as they don’t proclaim their sexual orientations out loud. That’s an improvement, but it’s still exclusionary.

You’ve got to hand it to Walsh for stepping in here and asking for more. It was politically perilous, and not just because he faced the prospect of alienating devotees on both sides. The former state representative and union head had run for mayor, and won, on the idea that he could unify the city’s various factions, and put an end to the ugly union contract battles of recent years. What would an inability to get a deal here say about his prospects with, say, the firefighters?

Nothing good, I suggested on Friday. Walsh disagreed.

“This is the first time we had both sides sitting at the table in 22 years,” he said. “I had about six weeks to do this. In union negotiations, you have a couple of years. If people want to criticize me for not being able to do this, that’s fine. I could have simply ignored the parade and said I’m not marching, but that’s not my style.”

He’s right. He could have taken a pass. Instead, his wading into the decades-old dispute has shone a sorely-needed spotlight on the persistence of prejudice — and on those willing to turn a blind eye to it — in spite of the immense leaps we’ve made on gay rights around here.

“There were a lot of folks who thought this had already been resolved, or it was ancient history, or who didn’t care any more,” said Kara Coredini, MassEquality’s executive director. “This has awakened interest in one of these last vestiges of really hostile discrimination.”

That has made it impossible to walk the fine line on which Walsh himself has marched for years, calling for the parade to be more inclusive, but still making his way down East Broadway. Now leaders have to take sides. In addition to Walsh, another parade fixture, US Representative Stephen Lynch of South Boston, has also said he might stay away. And on Friday, Boston Beer Co., maker of the iconic Sam Adams brew, announced it was pulling its parade sponsorship. That long-overdue statement was so loud even the most stubborn organizers had to take notice.

Maybe Walsh will have pulled off a huge coup by this afternoon. Maybe he won’t, and he’ll have to sit out the parade. But even then, he reckons the full inclusion gay rights supporters are looking for is coming.

“It’s going to happen in my first term,” he said.

And when it does, the mayor will deserve much of the credit for it.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com
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