Despite the seemingly halting nature of negotiations between South Boston Saint Patrick’s Day parade organizers and leaders in the local gay community, it’s remarkable how close the two sides have come — with Mayor Walsh’s help — to resolving an issue that’s divided the city for two decades. In 1995, the US Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Allied War Veterans Council’s right to exclude gay groups from marching in its parade. But justices weren’t affirming the wisdom of doing so, and organizers also have the right to ease off an entrenched position. Finding a way to include gay groups would make the parade a civic event that all of Boston can celebrate, and neither the war veterans’ council nor gay leaders should be afraid of making the compromises necessary to move forward.
As recently as last week, senior figures in the parade group insisted that no change was possible. “No, definitely not,” longtime organizer John ‘‘Wacko” Hurley told the Globe. Yet that position has shifted. On Friday, another parade official, Tim Duross, said the leading gay-rights advocacy group MassEquality had been invited to take part, but with one stipulation: Participants could march under the group’s banner but bear no signs or clothing acknowledging their orientation. Given the pressure gays and lesbians have long felt to hide their identities, it’s an extraordinarily difficult stipulation for MassEquality to accept. Of course, it’s also an odd line for parade organizers to draw, since MassEquality is well-known for its work on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues.
Rather than get caught up on semantics, parade organizers would be wiser to withdraw that condition. What they can ask in return is that gay groups recognize the parade’s focus on Irish culture and military heritage. There’s every reason to believe MassEquality would handle such a request in a respectful way — one that puts special emphasis on the contributions of gay military veterans.
Walsh, who plainly wants to march in this year’s parade but won’t do so unless gay groups can take part, deserves credit for pressing the issue. It’s also laudable that the parade organization now appears willing to hammer out a more inclusive approach; the decision by a Catholic school in Central Massachusetts to drop out of the parade illustrates that organizers still face some pressure in the opposite direction.
Fortunately, there’s ample reason to believe inclusion will win out. Gay groups are allowed to take part in the Saint Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin. The conception of gays and lesbians as a radical group — one making a political statement or engaging in risque “sexual advocacy” — is steadily giving way to the recognition that they’re present in every neighborhood and every extended family. There’s even been an evolution in the military culture whose values might once have informed the war veterans council’s original position. As Walsh has tried to make clear, the circumstances of 1995 aren’t etched in stone forever. And over time, different groups whose interests once seemed irreconcilable can find ways to happily coexist.