Like a zombie rising from the dead in a horror movie, the controversy over gay groups marching in South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day veterans parade appears to have sprung back to life. For the last two years, a group of gay veterans marched without incident, and the city and parade organizers seemed to have finally put the perennial clashes behind them. But now, without explanation, organizers on Tuesday rejected the application from the same group, OUTVETS.
So, here we go again, with the whole city settling into familiar roles. Politicians like Mayor Walsh and Governor Baker swiftly announced they wouldn’t march. Defenders pointed to the unanimous Supreme Court ruling that vindicated their First Amendment right to reject any group they chose — as if the right to exclude gay groups somehow turned it into a good idea. It will not shock longtime readers that this editorial page urges the parade organizers to reconsider and allow OUTVETS to march.
But if the whole showdown seems stale and counterproductive, it’s important to recognize the long-term social trends that have made the stakes far lower. The Supreme Court case, and the initial skirmishes over the parade, date from the early 1990s. The legal, political, and social landscape for gay and lesbian Americans is unrecognizably better today. For gay servicemembers and veterans, the end of formal discrimination in the military has lifted a huge burden. There’s still no good reason for the parade to bar OUTVETS, but whatever the organizers decide is not going to alter the overall acceptance of gays and lesbians.
Boston has changed too. One of the reasons the Southie parade became such a touchstone in the 1990s was because the procession through then-mayor Ray Flynn’s political backyard was perceived to be an important rite in the city’s civic life. The parade was a highlight of the local political calendar, and even received city funding. “History has made clear it’s a public event,” one gay rights activist said in 1993. And at the time, that description had the ring of truth.
But time, the willingness of many politicians to skip the parade, and the city’s growing diversity have all eroded the event’s prominence. Exclusion from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade no longer connotes exclusion from mainstream Boston.
The unexpected return of the parade wars provoked some anxiety on Wednesday, and fears that it would undo the hard work of the city and its leaders to dispel Boston’s old reputation for intolerance. It would certainly be better if the parade organizers relented. But if they choose to resume their old policy of exclusion, the primary victims will no longer be the gays and lesbians left out, or the city tarnished by association. The main victim will be the parade itself, which will only be less relevant, less representative, and less fun if it fails to welcome all veterans groups equally.