Organizers of South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day parade are inviting a statewide gay advocacy group to march, a significant first that could silence a controversy that has festered for two decades and cast a cloud over one of the city’s signature events.
But the invitation, brokered by Mayor Martin J. Walsh, includes an important caveat: The group, MassEquality, could not wear T-shirts or hold signs that include the word gay or refer to sexual orientation.
“They can march under the MassEquality banner,” Tim Duross, one of the parade coordinators, said Friday. “We’d be happy to have them here. And we’d be proud to have them here. Everybody knows who MassEquality is.
“We said, ‘You’re a great organization, you do wonderful things for people, and therefore we’d be happy to have you in our parade. But we’d rather you just wish everybody a happy St. Patrick’s Day and left it with that.’ ”
In an interview Friday night, Walsh hailed the MassEquality invitation as a major breakthrough in a city that has become increasingly diverse in recent decades. He minimized the significance of the rule barring references to sexual orientation and said he would meet next week with parade organizers and MassEquality to work out details about signs and T-shirts.
“This is probably the biggest step in 20 years,” Walsh said. “I’m really encouraged. We’re going to talk about how we can make this happen, how we can make this a reality.”
The organizers’ prohibition against T-shirts or signs with the word gay reflects rules in the parade’s written code of conduct, which forbids “the advertisement or display of one’s sexual orientation.” Organizers argue that references to sexual orientation alter the tone of the parade, which celebrates the military and Irish culture. Gay groups have pushed to march and openly celebrate their military service and Celtic pride.
MassEquality’s executive director, Kara S. Coredini, said she was hopeful the group would participate in the parade, scheduled for March 16. Coredini declined to discuss specifics about restrictions on T-shirts and signs.
“At this point, my mind is open, and I’m hopeful we can get to a place where we can end the exclusion,” Coredini said. “This is huge.”
The St. Patrick’s Day parade is sponsored by the Allied War Veterans Council . Court battles erupted in the early 1990s over whether a gay Irish group had the right to march.
Longtime parade organizer John “Wacko’’ Hurley took the case to the US Supreme Court and in 1995 won a landmark victory. Citing the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, the court ruled unanimously that organizers of a private parade could exclude gays and lesbians or any other groups.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino boycotted the parade for almost two decades because of the prohibition on gay groups. Walsh frequently marched in the parade as a state representative, including last year before launching his bid to succeed Menino. Now that he is mayor, Walsh said he wanted to use his influence to end the ban.
The 74-year-old Hurley has retired from his parade duties but still remains a potent influence.
“I don’t want to have a bunch of rabble-rousers,” he said Friday night. “We have our rules; we have our parade.”
Hurley said he was scheduled to meet with “two honchos” Saturday to discuss the parade, but would not disclose the identities of the individuals. Hurley said he did not know specifics about the invitation to MassEquality and had not decided whether he would approve of a group marching under a MassEquality banner.
“I don’t know,” Hurley said. “I’d have to think that one over.”
This year, two South Boston neighborhood groups applied to march in the parade to celebrate diversity, saying they would include openly gay members.
At least one of the groups, the South Boston Association of Non-Profits, had been approved to march with a sign that celebrates diversity but does not include the word gay, Duross said.
The president of the nonprofit group, Michael Dowling, was circumspect in his comments Friday night. “We continue our discussions with the Allied War Veterans,” he said. “We also remain optimistic.”
The other South Boston group that had applied to march, called the St. Vincent’s Lower End Neighborhood Association, did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The Allied War Veterans have also banned the participation of the group Veterans for Peace. The peace group has launched an alternative parade that includes gay and lesbian groups and runs a mile behind the traditional parade.
The ban against Veterans for Peace will continue, organizers of the traditional parade said, because it is a protest group. Protesting is prohibited in the parade’s code of conduct.
MassEquality’s first application this year had been rejected because the group wanted to hold signs and wear T-shirts that identified marchers as gay veterans, organizers said. The signs and T-shirts used the acronym LGBT. for lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
At Walsh’s urging, parade organizers reconsidered MassEquality’s application. At their regular weekly meeting Tuesday, organizers agreed to let the gay group march if it complies with the prohibition against displaying sexual orientation.
“We asked, ‘Would everyone go along with them marching under the MassEquality banner?’ ” Duross said. “Everyone agreed.”
With a little more than two weeks until the parade, negotiations continue.
“It would be nice” if MassEquality marched “as long as they follow the rules,” but time is running short, said parade organizer Philip J. Wuschke Jr. “It’s getting so close, and I’ve got a full parade as it is. Eventually I’m going to say the parade’s full.”
Andrew Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.