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The Podium

The St. Patrick’s Day parade — then and now

Members of the Sanford High School color guard of Sanford, Me., twirled flags while marching in last year’s St. Patrick's Day Parade. Steven Senne/AP file

Two decades ago, I trekked the St. Patrick’s Day Parade route though the streets of South Boston on two occasions.

I am Irish, a veteran, and gay. U nder court order and with police protection, 25 of us — members of the Irish American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston — experienced a barrage of uncharitable, less-than-neighborly behavior.

For hours, we endured a barrage of sexually suggestive slurs, homophobic epithets, and obscene gestures — mostly from youths. One sign read, “No gay Irish Need Apply.”

It was traumatic.

As a Roman Catholic priest put in a homily in church one Sunday shortly afterwards, “It was one of the most despicable public displays of bigotry, prejudice, and potential for violence this city had seen in a generation.”


But that was then, and this is now.

The iconic neighborhood of South Boston has changed — and changed dramatically for the better. It is more welcoming, neighborly, and hospitable.

For that reason, I am sad to see a breakdown in negotiations and conversations among the mayor, MassEquality, and Allied War Veterans Council, the parade organizers.

I encourage all parties to take a deep breath, assume the best of each other’s motivations and intentions, and start talking again.

A key sticking point seems to be the mention of the words “gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender,’’ or LGBT. For many of us, those words are not indicators or statements of in-your-face political activism. Rather, they are one way that we — as a largely invisible minority — let others know who we are and that we are proud of our minority, identity status.

Of course, gay identity has a political and activist dimension, given the fall of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the advent of same-sex marriage, and attempts to carve out religious exemptions against LGBTs.


But on St. Patrick’s Day, when as my mother tells me, everyone is Irish anyway, why can’t someone like me march in Southie’s big parade?

I cannot speak for others who marched in 1992 and 1993, but my motivation was to connect Irish/Celtic pride with gay pride — nothing more, nothing less. I am also a veteran and a 1978 Notre Dame grad; just how many more bona fide Irish-American credentials need be supplied?

Just as I did then, I mean no ill will toward the Allied War Veterans Council or South Boston residents.

Recently, many have asked: Why do you have to say that you are gay, why do you have to tell us, why is a visible identity marker — words or a symbol — so important?

Simply put, I cannot go back. Returning to self-censorship just doesn’t cut it anymore. Those of us who suffered the shame and stigma of the closet will not revisit that twilight zone ever again. The costs were tremendous and unbearable, utterly self-destructive.

Furthermore, despite what some contend, there is no such thing as the so-called “gay lifestyle” anymore than there is an Irish, Catholic, or clerical “lifestyle.”

So let me offer a suggestion: If I — or anyone — were to march in an LGBT-identified contingent, holding a small Irish tricolor and rainbow flag, would that be acceptable to parade organizers? What about green T-shirts with a rainbow flag imprinted on it? What about carrying rainbow-colored balloons or banners?

With all the creativity among the Irish of Boston and the city’s LGBT community, surely we can move the parade to forward march for all.


Meanwhile, I can’t get the words of the song out of my head: “When Irish eyes are smiling, all the world seems bright and gay” — and lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and straight.

Chuck Colbert is a freelance journalist.