The snow clogging the St. Patrick’s Day parade route in South Boston has buried a milestone for an event long dogged by controversy.
For the first time in two decades, Boston’s mayor plans to march in the parade because organizers have embraced a group of openly gay veterans. Governor Charlie Baker will also participate Sunday and, according to his press secretary, is “pleased that all groups were included this year.”
And US Representative Seth Moulton, who served four tours as a Marine in Iraq, is expected to walk with the contingent from OUTVETS , an organization that honors lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender military veterans.
This year, an abbreviated route and the frenzied work of bulldozers and dump trucks to remove snow have been the source of hubbub swirling around the parade. The perennial fight over allowing openly gay marchers? After more than 20 years, the issue seems to have melted like an ice dam on a sunny day.
But that does not diminish the significance of the nearly 30 marchers who plan to march Sunday in military formation up Broadway under an OUTVETS banner.
“It’s a huge step,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Wednesday. “Society has changed. Southie has changed. Boston has changed. . . . I think this opens the door to putting years of controversy behind everybody.”
For the gay veterans, Sunday will be about more than marching in a parade. Many served under the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy, which barred openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual people from the military and forced those who did serve to cloak their orientation. The military abandoned the policy in 2011, and the parade is recognizing the service of gay military members for the first time.
“It gives legitimacy to LGBT veterans, which is one of the most grossly underrepresented demographics in the veterans’ community,” said OUTVETS founder Bryan Bishop, who served 20 years in the Air Force. “This is huge for us because our city is saying to us and LGBT veterans, ‘We honor you. We value you. We thank you for your service.’ ”
A similar breakthrough has occurred with New York’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, which is admitting one group that represents gay media workers, Out@NBCUniversal. But New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters Sunday he still does not plan to march in the parade because organizers have not done enough to include gay groups.
In Boston, the parade in recent decades became a battleground for the gay rights movement, after organizers rejected an application to march from the Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston.
The fight landed in the US Supreme Court, which ruled that the march was a privately organized event protected by the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Organizers had the right to include — or reject — any group.
Organizers have argued that gay people have always marched. The prohibition, they contend, has been against political statements about sexual orientation or other issues.
Last year, Walsh tried to broker a deal to allow a gay rights organization to march, but after an apparent breakthrough, negotiations collapsed. For the first time in years, Walsh, a former state representative, refused to walk in the parade.
Ultimately, at least two contingents with gay members marched, although they participated with South Boston community groups rather than as part of a gay rights organization.
“Nobody raised any eyebrows,” said one of the parade organizers, Brian Mahoney. “It’s a manufactured controversy. We’re looking at [OUTVETS] as veterans. They came to us as veterans and said we have no political or social agenda.”
On Wednesday, OUTVETS organizers said they will be joined in the parade by Moulton, who has become an allied member of the group, which is open to gay and straight military veterans. In an interview, the North Shore lawmaker referenced the 50th anniversary of the bloody march in Selma, Ala., that gave momentum to the Voting Rights Act.
“Gay rights are the civil rights fight of our generation,” Moulton said. “We talked last weekend about the steady march toward freedom and justice with the anniversary of Selma. This is part of that march. We have made great progress, but we still have a long way to go.”
Moulton recalled that in 2007, combat veterans were being called back to active duty because there were not enough troops for the surge in Iraq. One of Moulton’s friends, Joe Donnelly, had left the Marines and come out of closet. Donnelly then received orders that would send him back to a war zone, but the military was still under the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy.
“All he had to do was pick up the phone and say two words, ‘I’m gay,’ and he wouldn’t have had to go,” Moulton said. “He decided that he didn’t want anyone to go in his place, so he would re-hide this fundamental part of who he is so he could do another deployment. That took remarkable courage.”
Andrew Ryan can be reached at email@example.com.