History marched through South Boston on Sunday as gay organizations took their place for the first time in the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. Joining them in front of hundreds of thousands of green-clad revelers was Mayor Martin J. Walsh, the first Boston chief executive to walk the route in two decades.
“I’m very excited,” Walsh said just before stepping off under a light, cold rain. “We can finally move beyond the issue of inclusiveness.”
Walsh, who tried unsuccessfully in 2014 to negotiate the inclusion of a gay rights group, announced last week that he would walk the snow-shortened route from the Broadway MBTA station to Pleasure Bay because organizers had invited OUTVETS, which includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender veterans.
The former mayor, Thomas M. Menino, had consistently boycotted the parade because its organizers from the South Boston Allied War Veterans, backed by a US Supreme Court ruling, refused to allow gay groups to participate. But on Sunday, politicians were a major, can’t-miss part of the festivities.
Governor Charlie Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito were among them. So were US Senator Edward J. Markey and Representative Stephen F. Lynch, a South Boston native. Much of the City Council was present, as well as state Representative Nick Collins, also of South Boston, and state Senator Linda Dorcena Forry of Dorchester.
Markey, making his first appearance in the parade, grinned broadly as he walked down West Broadway on a route that had been reduced because of the heavy snowfall that crippled the crowded neighborhood and the region this winter.
“The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney once said that there are moments in time when hope and history rhyme,” Markey said just before the march began. This parade, the senator said, is one of those occasions.
Police Commissioner William Evans, sporting a scally cap, also marched near the front of the parade.
“Being a South Boston kid, it’s always a good day,” Evans said. “It’s great that it’s now inclusive.”
In addition to the LGBT veterans’ group, parade organizers this year approved a request to march from Boston Pride, a gay rights group that holds its own parade in June.
The Massachusetts State Council of the Knights of Columbus withdrew from the celebration because the event had “become politicized and divisive,” its leaders said. The Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Harvard announced that its band would not march because OUTVETS had been invited.
However, once the parade began moving up West Broadway and into the heart of South Boston, concerns over divisiveness seemed as distant as a day without snowbanks. The gay groups received respectful and sometimes enthusiastic applause, including shout-outs for US Representative Seth Moulton, a Marine veteran of Iraq who marched with OUTVETS.
“Gay rights are the civil rights fight of our generation,” Moulton told the Globe last week.
Boston police made 10 arrests and issued 278 citations, primarily for public drinking violations, said Officer James Kenneally. However, he added, the crowd generally was well behaved. The numbers were similar to last year’s.
The parade made history because of what’s new, but its time-tested trappings also attracted spectators and participants from across the country. Bagpipes droned, military men and women marched crisply in step, and the band from American Legion Post 156 in Waltham, quarter-century veterans of this parade, sang “Southie Is My Hometown” when they weren’t playing their instruments.
Miss Massachusetts, a fashion outlier in the sea of green, wore a long navy-blue gown as she perched on the back of a convertible. Members of the Los Angeles Fire Department tried to keep warm as they waited to walk.
Along the route, which had been changed to avoid side streets still clogged by walls of snow, the windows of businesses and bars were festooned with shamrock and leprechaun decals. Police patrolled the route while people stood three and more deep, and long lines formed outside the pubs.
On West Broadway, Martha Cardoza, 34, looked forward to history in the making. “It’s sad that in this century people are still saying they won’t participate if gays are included,” she said.
Nick Ferrigno, a 19-year-old native of Bridgewater who attends St. Michael’s College in Vermont, echoed that view. “There shouldn’t be a line between LGBT and straight people,” Ferrigno said.
When Boston Pride walked past Dorchester Street and onto East Broadway, spinning rainbow umbrellas and wearing “wicked proud” shirts, the crowd yelled loudly in support. Some of the marchers said “thank you” in response, while others just waved in happiness.
The barriers for gay groups had almost fallen before last year’s parade. However, weeks of negotiations between Walsh and the Allied War Veterans could not produce a breakthrough in time for the 2014 parade.
But on Sunday, the years of disagreement and exclusion seemed very much in the past.
“Looking back on this, people are going to wonder why we had this discussion” to begin with, the mayor said before Sunday’s parade. “It’s moving on to a new chapter in Boston’s history.”
The welcome for Boston Pride and OUTVETS spanned the generations and included Arlene Phinney, 76, from Milton, who stood on the route in a dark-green wool coat, a green silk scarf, and a pin depicting an Irish landscape.
“I think it’s great that they’re accepting everybody,” Phinney said.
One organization that did not feel welcome was Veterans for Peace. Pat Scanlon, a Vietnam veteran who belongs to the group, said the veterans did not participate because the city did not grant them a permit to march at noon, when crowds would have begun gathering.
Instead, Scanlon said, the city placed them well behind the main parade at a time when much of the crowd would have dispersed.
“It’s disrespectful,” Scanlon said in a phone interview after the parade ended.
The parade began at 1 p.m., but revelers began swarming onto the sides of West Broadway more than an hour before. Brett Starr and Shelley Tonner of Montclair, N.J., arrived early for their first St. Patrick’s Day parade in Boston after hearing the route had been altered.
The green theme was everywhere, of course, from stovepipe leprechaun hats, to shamrock antennae, to leashed dogs outfitted in striking green vests. Some men wore kilts, braving the chilly weather with bare legs.
But Boston being Boston, there were a few gripes.
Jody Sullivan, 57, from South Boston, said the mayor should have delayed the parade a week because some side streets are still not cleared and people with small children could not reach the route.
“I think the mayor is selfish. And I voted for him!” she said.
Sullivan came to the parade with Bailey DeBellis, 19, another South Boston resident, who said she always stays until the end. Both were thrilled that LGBT groups were marching.
“I think it’s a good mix of culture — the Irish pride and the gay pride. They just want to celebrate, too,” DeBellis said.