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Progress overtakes old fight as gay marchers join parade

Not every war ends with a surrender. Even without a white flag, the long battle in South Boston over whether gays can march openly in the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade has effectively ended. A group of marchers from the neighborhood carried a rainbow banner in Sunday’s festivities, drawing cheers from thousands of spectators. Another float fired rainbow-colored fabric into a pot of gold. Everyone watching the parade understood who the marchers were and what they represented. The parade was a picture of what gay-rights advocates have spent decades seeking. It showed how much the nation, the city, and the South Boston neighborhood have changed.

And yet, within the fraught terms that have long framed the clashes over the parade, the event was a failure because MassEquality, the gay-rights group, was once again denied permission to march. That was only the latest chapter in a 20-year fight between gay-rights groups and parade organizers, who have consistently refused to allow the groups to participate. That decision, in turn, has caused many progressive politicians to boycott the event. Mayor Marty Walsh, who tried valiantly to broker a last-minute deal between MassEquality and the organizers, honored his promise not to participate.

All sides should view what happened Sunday as a fresh start. If MassEquality applies again, parade organizers should admit the group — and without asking it to avoid saying “gay” on its signs. Yet an inability to reach an agreement with MassEquality does not mean categorically rejecting gays — or, it turns out, even rejecting gay marchers who overtly express their orientation. The litmus test for politicians, and for the public at large, should not be whether MassEquality or any other single group receives permission to march. It’s whether the parade, as it winds through the streets of South Boston, truly welcomes all Bostonians on their own terms.

While MassEquality may not have achieved its own definition of victory this year, the group could hardly deny that gays marched openly. The parade is already changing, because society is changing. Walking away from the fight now might be an unsatisfying end for some gay-rights advocates, who might prefer to see longtime parade organizer John “Wacko” Hurley forced into a dramatic capitulation. But the barriers keeping gays out of the parade are crumbling away on their own. Bostonians sometimes have a bad habit of holding on to grievances for too long. It takes a measure of magnanimity to declare victory and go home — or to declare victory and join the parade. But for gay-rights groups that have spent decades battling for acceptance on St. Patrick’s Day, that time may be drawing near.