The South Boston that Michael Dowling moved to 40 years ago was not a welcoming place for a 23-year-old gay artist.
He endured slurs and insults, he said, taunts and threats. So when a group of marchers from the Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Pride Committee (GLIB) joined the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, he bought a bucket of pink roses and gathered his family and friends.
It was March 15, 1992, and the parade was set to pass by the house he owned on the corner of G and Story streets.
“I decided to support GLIB committee,” Dowling said. “But what I really wanted to say was ‘[expletive] you’ to South Boston.”
When the parade arrived, flanked by police protecting the marchers from a torrent of harassment, a friend charged through the scrum with the flowers, and Dowling followed. There in the street, hate raining down all around them, they passed out pink roses.
“It was a moment like no other moment I had experienced,” said Dowling, who sold the little house a few years ago but still lives in the neighborhood.
Forty years is a long time, and South Boston today is a very different place. On Thursday, after decades of court battles and controversy, the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council announced that the planning of next year’s parade will be led by the founder and chief executive of OUTVETS, a group that honors the military service of LGBTQ veterans.
“It’s thrilling. I’m thrilled,” Dowling said. “And it’s overdue.”
The selection of OUTVETS’ Bryan Bishop would seem to signal the end of a sad and sordid history that at one point reached all the way to the Supreme Court. It would all be a stain, were it not so fresh: As recently as 2017 the parade’s organizers sought to ban gay groups from marching.
So if this does mark a turning point, as Veterans Council commander Dave Falvey indicated to the Globe’s John Hilliard, then it is a shamefully tardy one. When the right thing arrives so late, you celebrate but you also wonder: What took so long?
“I think it’s super complicated. . . . All liberation is,” Dowling said. “I wanted to burst into tears when I saw [the news of Bishop’s appointment]. It’s very emotional. It still remains complicated in my mind.”
“I’ve worked a long time on this. I almost want to cry,” he said, through tears. “I’m not going to find the right words. That’s wicked awesome.”
Monahan, 64, who came out as gay about eight years ago, said the ugliness of the parade has long overshadowed the reality in Southie, which has largely embraced the gay community.
“I was so frustrated by this foolishness,” Monahan said. “We were then painted like a bunch of Neanderthals.”
Now, in a neighborhood that is different both demographically and physically from what it was during its darkest moments, perhaps some of that reputation can begin to fade.
“The Southie of the old parade doesn’t even exist,” Dowling said.
For Dowling, the terrified euphoria of that day in 1992 — crashing through the police line, reveling with hands full of roses but never quite sure if a fist was hurtling toward his skull — did not last long.
“The next week, every window in my house was broken,” Dowling said.
He decided then, he said, that his hatred for his adopted home was unhealthy.
“I decided that if it was OK to be me, I had to give the community who I am,” Dowling said. And so instead of cursing the place, he stayed and sought to make it better.
“He was very courageous. And that was horrible,” Monahan said. “He stepped up. He went totally out, and he paid a price for that.”
Neighbors showed their support.
In the years that followed, Dowling’s art and activism merged. As the artistic director and founder of Medicine Wheel Productions, he created programs that have helped hundreds of at-risk young people. In 2014, Monahan and Dowling were part of the South Boston Association of Non-Profits, which was allowed to march in the parade, even though the group’s application noted that LGBTQ organizations would participate.
Both men credited the late Brian Mahoney, former commander of the Veterans Council, for his work on the issue. Mahoney died in 2016.
“I think he’d be marching alongside Bryan. I would, too,” Monahan said.
Dowling, Monahan, and the countless others who sought real inclusion should not have had to fight so hard. But they did it anyway. They stayed and made their neighborhood — their neighborhood — better and stronger.
Congratulations are in order, of course. But maybe what we should really be saying is “Thank you.”Nestor Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.