Southie’s Saint Patrick Day Parade

June 27 2010 144I used to attend the St. Patrick’s day parade in South Boston as a child with my parents, then as I slipped into my teens when it became inappropriate to be seen with one’s parents with my friends, and finally with my wife when my children were young. I think all of these times the parade was on March 17th rather than a Sunday nearby that date.

As a child I stood in front of my grandmother’s house on East Fourth Street; with my friends we usually went up to Dorchester Heights, and with my kids I went to my cousins’ houses up on East Broadway. Memories as a child involve my uncle and his friends involved in a block long fist fight; as a teenager when the Dublin Mayor Robert Briscoe marched in the parade. This was memorable because he was Jewish which seemed strange to me at the time since I couldn’t figure out how anyone but an Irish Catholic could become the major of Dublin. As a young father I was amazed at the banality of the parade and the amount of beer trucks that seemed to be part of it.

I don’t think I’ve been to the parade since some time in the 1970s. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about it. My interest in it has continued because of the issue concerning whether gays should be able to participate. My brother, William, happened to involve himself legally in the matter and assisted those who ran the parade in their legal efforts to protect their rights to decide who could participate in the parade.

He has set out his experience doing this in a book called: “From Trial Court to the United States Supreme Court: Anatomy of a Free Speech Case: The Incredible Inside Story Behind the Theft of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.” Those with an interest in seeing how the judges can make the law into what they prefer despite the First Amendment would enjoy it. Another summary of the events is set out here.

Every Massachusetts judge, except one. Justice Nolan, who heard the case ruled that the organizers of the parade were wrong to exclude gay groups; when the Supreme Court took the case it unanimously (9 – 0) ruled that all those judges were themselves wrong. The Supreme Court said that the parade organizers could not be prohibited from excluding the messages of groups it did not agree with, nor could it be forced to endorse a message against its will.

It’s really a simple issue to comprehend. Suppose you want to promote a vegetarian diet. You apply for and are given the right to use a public place to do that. You solicit speakers who you believe support your view-point. You are approached by members of the American Carnivore society who want to present their views which are opposite of yours. You have the right to just say no to them. Suppose a gay group wants to give a presentation, is that a different case?  Not really, but if you exclude them you may be suddenly accused of being something you may not be.

That’s the position of the Southie Parade organizers, they don’t want to let gays into their parade if they are going to present a message that they don’t like. That is their right. It is assumed that they are homophobic. This then makes them POOF (people out of favor) which is the signal for many of the right thinking people to feel good and righteous by ganging up on them.

A Herald columnist Marjorie Eagan wants to shut the parade down telling us of all the other people who have no problems with gays. Everyone else in the media seems of the same mind. It is a safe place and comforting place to be on the side of gays as the judges in Massachusetts decided they would be even though it meant depriving the parade organizers of their Constitutional rights.

Back in the 1992 and 1993 parade gays did march, They encountered a somewhat hostile reception, at least in the first year. Then the litigation began and the parade was cancelled in 1994 to keep gays out.  In 1995 the Supreme Court gave the organizers the right to decide who would be in their parade. For that past 20 years up until this year the parade organizers kept gays out but under pressure from the new mayor they came up with a compromise. They would allow a group of gays to march as a group under the banner of MassEquality as long as they did not identify themselves as gay. That hardly was much of a concession. I assume that over the years there have been many gays marching in the parade who did not identify themselves as such.

The attitude toward gays in our country since the early 1990s has shifted drastically. It did because so many gays feeling less threatened identified themselves as such. What happened was that most straight people found out that they had relatives, friends, associates and other people who they loved, liked or admired who were gay. Given that, it made little sense to do other than what one had already been doing in the relationship. Slowly the acceptance of gays grew.

In the early 1990s not only did a person hide that he or she was gay but also the idea that gay people existed was also very much not a matter of open discussion. That also has changed. It has been 10 years since same-sex marriage was allowed in Massachusetts. Few, if any, are unaware of gays or their sexual preferences.

It won’t be this year; maybe it won’t be next. But someday soon the parade organizers will recognize the absurdity of trying to prevent people who are gay from marching in their parade with appropriate banners or T-shirts proclaiming their message. When they do, their message at worst will be met with a big ho-hum from the spectators. For now in America, and even South Boston, most of the prejudice against gays has evaporated.

I’d guess, that a couple or three years after gays first march they’ll too find it something of a bore. Their message will have become so prosaic that it will carry no more meaning than that of the lumbering beer trucks.


15 thoughts on “Southie’s Saint Patrick Day Parade

  1. I understand “reductio ad absurdum” and know you’re not equating NAMBLA and Nazis to the gay applicants, but your use of “Must they be admitted” makes me think that you’ve missed the point. No one is arguing “must”, that’s been definitively decided.

    It’s time to move on to “should”, a point where reasonable people can decide what is appropriate in a quasi-public celebration of Southie and being Irish. NAMBLA, Westboro, Nazis can be reasonably excluded for their anti-social messages. A bunch of gay veterans who mostly want just to show the world that gays can perform effective and honorable service to their country deserve consideration, and to me, inclusion.

    1. Jeff:

      I understand no one “must” be admitted; the Supreme Court decided that. But prior to its decision the parade organizers were told by the courts of Massachusetts that they must admit the gay groups and if that were the case then they courts could have told them to admit the other groups.

      As far as should we know that a gay group was admitted this year but they could not identify themselves as such. They did not accept. I’m not privy to what they wanted to be able to say as far as giving a message. If they wanted to say “I’m gay and Irish” or “I’m an Irish Veteran and gay” or some type of identifying matter as that I don’t see why they would not be allowed, but that’s me and not the veterans.

      I think for the veterans this is beyond being a gay issue but it is one of preserving a right of having engaged in a battle with that group and losing when it should not have lost and finally after three or four years having its right to decide who participates in a parade upheld. That was a bitter battle when they knew they were right and the Massachusetts courts refuse to honor their rights; not only the courts but they were being continually attacked by the Boston Globe with its anti-Southie animus and other politically correct media. To give in now to many means to give in to those who wanted to wrongly tell them what to do. I suggest that no one willingly gives up to the opposition a hard fought victory and that plays into today’s mindset for the parade organizers.

      1. Matt,

        As we used to say at Fenway Park on all those chilly September evenings, “maybe next year”. And then one year, the spell was broken and all the contention, disappointment and unhappiness just seemed to fade away, hopefully forever. I wish us that in this case.

        The best of the holiday to you and yours.


  2. The parade is an embarrassment to this Irish Catholic American. I would never be caught near it. We are not all drunks! We are not all gay haters! Some of us ARE gay. That’s what this parade looks like to the outside world – drinking to excess and gay hating.

    I so wish that the million (or whatever number) of people who attend this thing would STOP going. Once the numbers dropped, maybe the organizers would re-think it a little. But as long as people come out in droves supporting it, it ends up looking like Irish people love to drink to excess and hate gay people and love to show off about it and that’s even WORSE for our reputation. Heavy sigh.

    1. Margaret:

      Don’t worry about the Irish reputation, people will believe what they want to believe about it. I used to go to it and most of the people are very sober and law abiding; there are always a few who will drink too much which also happened every Thanksgiving and other holidays. Had you ever gone to a Southie/Eastie game you’d know what I mean.

      I feel the gays should be in the parade although I recognize that it is the right of the people who run the parade to control the message. I think a comment by William is well worth considering. What if a group of Nazis wanted to march; or a group like the Westboro Baptist Church; or a group like NAMBLA? Must they be admitted.

      From what I can tell the parade organizers are not anti-gay but don’t think their parade is the place for gay groups to march proclaiming their sexual preferences. As I noted in my blog, I am at a loss to figure out why the St. Patrick’s day parade is being run by a veterans organization many of whose members may not even be Irish. But you have to accept no matter what we think they have a right to decide what their message will be.

  3. While no one disputes the legal right of the vets to exclude any message they wish, it’s unfortunate to hear calls to continue the ban because…well just because they can.

    That legal matter has been settled. Maybe it’s time now to be magnanimous, to declare that the parade will entertain good faith applications from any prospective marchers who want to celebrate St. Patrick or Southie or even just being pretend Irish.

    Southie, to anyone who has been there recently, has changed. When Linehan tried to wrestle the breakfast hosting duties away from the newly elected state senator for reasons of “tradition”, many ex-Southie folk like myself winced. It gets tiring to defend your hometown from repeated self-inflicted PR wounds. Our kids roll their eyes when they hear the tortured logic and legalese used to defend these vestiges of bygone days.

    They’ve torn down Ma’s old apartment building on Mercer Street and it was sad to see. When I was a child, I visted her there and that’s where I learned my church Latin from my aunts. Our apartment 870 goes in Phase III, I hear.

    And I had guessed Bobby.

  4. After the Globe, the Radicals and the civil rights violators lost the case in the U.S. Supreme Court, the Globe called for a boycott of the parade. Some one million people showed up the next year in defiance of the Globe’s instructions and enjoyed the traditional celebration. The only thing being boycotted today is the Globe. Once a sore loser always a sore loser

    1. NC:

      True – the matter of the inclusion of gays in the St. Pat’s parade has been pushed by the Globe for years.

  5. 1. Celebrating st. pat’s day has nothing to do with celebrating homosexuality. The Veterans Council, parade organizers, very simply do not want to celebrate homosexuality in their parade; they do not want pro-gay displays, pro-gay signs or pro-gay symbols. Similarly, they don’t want to celebrate abortion and do not want pro-abortion groups, signs or symbols in their parade. 2. For four years running, 1992-1995, the corrupt Mass judges ordered the Veterans to admit a gay group into the line of March. After futile appeals in 1992 and 1993, the Veterans canceled the 1994 parade rather than accede to the corrupt Mass judges’ orders. In 1995, the Veterans held a “protest” parade. In June 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court said the corrupt Mass judges acted “WITHOUT LAWFUL AUTHORITY” and violated the First Amendment Free Speech and Free Association rights of the Veterans. The US Supreme Court said that nobody, especially a judge, can tell private organizers what groups to include in their parade or what messages to convey in their parade. 3. Remember, it’s simple: the Veterans do not want to celebrate gay-pride on St. Patrick’s Day; they want no gay-pride messages in their parade. 4. I urge the Veterans never to concede this point: they and they alone control the messages the Parade will convey.

    1. William:

      You raise an interesting point when you say “Celebrating st. pat’s day has nothing to do with celebrating homosexuality.” It makes me wonder what are we celebrating with the South Boston St. Patrick’s day parade. I’d assume the purpose of the parade was to celebrate the life of Saint Patrick by giving the Irish of the city a chance to come out and enjoy a day in which they can show their pride in being Irish. This perhaps was its original reason but as best I can tell Saint Patrick has taken a back seat in the festivities and the Irish have opened the door to all others to come and celebrate with them.

      What seems strange to me is that the group that has the right to run the parade is a Veteran’s group. I would have thought it’d have been an Irish group like the Sons of Ireland, the Irish Rovers, or the Blarney Stone Kissers. I understand the parade organizers allow veterans groups into the parade. Yet, it is hard to see how such groups have anything to do with St. Patrick’s day. I’m sure they allow other groups into the parade such as the electrical union, or the pipe fitters, the teamsters or any union group that wishes to march. One would be hard pressed to see that they have anything to do with celebrating St. Patrick’s day.

      Since the early 1990s the organizers have banned gay groups. This year they changed their mind under pressure from the Mayor Walsh. They decided to allow one gay group MassEquality march. Why? What was the purpose in doing that? You must admit doing this had nothing to do with the celebration of Saint Patrick’s day but as I’ve suggested that has mattered little over the years since there have been so many other groups with messages that one would have to be clairvoyant to connect them to Saint Patrick.

      Celebrating St. Patrick’s day has nothing to do with celebrating homosexuality but there certainly is nothing wrong with homosexuals celebrating St. Patrick’s day. Right now gays can march, like electricians or steamfitters or cops, but unlike the others they can’t say that they are gay. It would seem to me signs such as “I’m Proud to be Irish and Gay” would be as acceptable as “I’m a Proud Irish Steamfitter” and “Happy St. Patrick’s Day from a Gay Irishman” would be as unobjectionable as “Happy St. Patrick’s Day from a Mexican Steelworker.

      All agree the parade organizers control the message; some wonder why the veterans are running the St. Patrick’s Day parade rather than Irish organizations. All agree the parade organizers control the message, many wonder why they want to prevent those who attend the parade from hearing a St. Patrick’s Day greeting from a gay.

      1. Matt: the issues you have raised were raised by Judge Zobel who wrote “a proper celebration of St. Patrick’s Day requires inclusiveness.” The US Supreme Court mocked such reasoning and countered that no judge, no official can tell private parade organizers what the “proper way” is to celebrate anything. The Supreme Court went on to say that clarity of expression and consistency of message are not required for protected expressions; that both the jabberwocky verse of Lewis Carroll and the abstract paintings of Jackson Pollack were fully protected expressions, even if few understood them, and no one had the right to alter them. New York Federal Judge Duffy said that a Parade was a “pristine form” of free speech.” The US Supreme Court agreed.
        2. What would your response be if gay-pride groups wanted to alter Shakespeare’s plays by including gay-pride signs, symbols (pink triangles), and gay pride characters? You’d say that no one has the right to alter another’s expression, wouldn’t you? The writer, the painter, the parade organizer decides what messages will be included in their expressions and what messages not to include. It’s elemental.
        3. You’ll notice in the 100 years that South Boston Citizens—the Vets took over after World War II— have run the parade there have been no pro-abortion, pro-divorce, or pro-drug messages in the parade. Why? What’s the harm in saying, “I’m Irish and I’m pro-abortion?” The harm is to the Veterans’ constitutional free speech rights not to include that message within their parade.
        4. The Veterans’ St. Patrick’s Day Parade is a wonderful celebration with 15,000 marchers and between 600,000 and one million spectators every year. It’s said to be the second or third largest parade in the country.
        5. The parade has traditionally included civic groups, unions, various religious groups, a score of bands, bagpipers, the Cycling Murrays, the Baptist Bible Trolley. The Veterans Council alone decides who will march and what banners will be displayed. That is their right.
        6. It is radical gay groups and liberal politicians who are trying to alter the Veterans’ expressions, thus attempting to violate the Veterans constitutional rights.
        7. Must every parade in Boston—Easter Parades, Columbus Day Parades, Veterans Day Parades, Red Sox World Series Parades, Greek Day Parades, May Processions—have gay pride messages, signs, symbols, and gay pride groups?
        8. Remember, the City of Cambridge, set up an “alternative” St. Pat’s Parade and invited about 8 gay pride groups to participate. That Parade shut down after two years because no one showed up to watch the display.
        9. Twenty years ago the Veterans decided that gay-pride messages were antithetical to the messages they wished to convey through their traditional parade. Perhaps you agree with Judge Zobel that a “proper way” to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day requires “inclusiveness”. Let’s all reflect on this question: “What’s the harm in altering someone’s expression, in forcing someone to convey a message they do no wish to convey, in forcing someone to display symbols they do not wish to display?”

        1. Bill:

          1. Judge Zobel upheld the right of gays to march; I’ve said as the Supreme Court decided it is up to the organizers of the parade what message they want to send out.
          2. I don’t see gay pride groups altering any message that is being sent out since I’m unclear on the message the parade wishes to send out and suggest any message by a gay group would comfortably fit within the many others.
          3. I suggest the message of “pro-abortion” “pro-divorce” and pro-drug” are sending a message whereas “Irish Veterans” or “Irish Firefighter” or “Gay Irish” just identifies the group. I agree the Veterans control the message but it escapes me why they let the former two Irish groups identify themselves but not the latter.
          4. I’ve no doubt the The Veterans’ St. Patrick’s Day Parade is a wonderful celebration. But why not let gays who want to identify themselves as such that they can’t participate.
          5. No one doubts the Veterans rights to let the people march who they want in their parade. It’s just their wisdom that is in question.
          6. I’d keep out radical gay groups as I would other radical groups. But I’d suggest the parade organizers let those non-radical gay groups march.
          7. Each parade in Boston can send its own message. I don’t know what the other parades do with respect to their messages.
          8. I’d expect a St. Pat’s day parade in Cambridge to have little longevity no matter whether they invited a gay group or not.

          9. I think having gays parade with the message “I’m Gay and Irish” should be permitted. The Veterans have approved gays marching in the parade but don’t want them to identify themselves. Isn’t that sort of strange? Isn’t it like having St. William’s ban march but not letting them tell who they are.
          No one questions the parade organizers right to control the message. No one is forcing them to allow gay groups to march. The organizers fought to keep that power going all the way to the Supreme Court to do this. I can understand them having won deciding not to bend in to public pressure. But as I said in my post, times have changed and I don’t see how a reasonable accommodation can come about in the matter.
          I suppose on the other hand that even the most pro-gay parade organizer in the veterans group would see that allowing gays to march after fighting so hard to keep control of the message that they wanted to convey would be like giving up a hard won victory. It would be like giving in to the Boston Globe with its anti-South Boston animus and all those judges who twisted the law against them. As any one knows if you battle hard to win something you are reluctant to make it look like you surrendered in the end.

  6. Matt,

    I was interested in what your thoughts might be on this. I agree that the organizers have the legal right to exclude contrary messages from their own parade even if they probably (I’m no lawyer) can’t exclude any group as a class of people. I also agree that resistance will peter out as being gay almost inevitably becomes more mainstream, and opposition starts to seem just mean-spirited to casual onlookers.

    It might be analogous to the busing crisis (should I capitalize Busing Crisis now that is an iconic historic event?)in the 70s. After years of explaining to outsiders that it was both so much more and so much less than what they read in the damn Globe, and that there were some principles in play and we were not all rabid racists, you just give up. The written history becomes truth (See: J. Bulger saga)and you just avoid the subject and hope the passage of time dulls the PR disaster it became.

    I’m about ten years younger, so my memories of St. Paddy’s is a bit different. As a child, of course, we watched the parade on Dorchester Street as it marched by the projects. Being carefully overseen by parents, aunts and uncles, it was all bands and soldiers and politicians. But by my late teens, it had devolved into a general post-adolescent drunken melee.

    It became something best avoided, especially since I was hanging around with a Dorchester crowd by then and our “outsider-ness” shone like a beacon for every lout and yahoo along the route.

    I also remember one impossibly cute girl from my grammar school days at St. Augustine’s. After seeing her laid out in a doorway on East 9th, covered in her own vomit, she somehow never looked as cute to me again.

    I only went back when we could bring our own kids and join the family gathered at my sister’s on East 6th. Things seemed to have calmed a bit by then, or perhaps we had just aged out of the Lout Demographic.

    One question: Which uncle?

    1. Jeff:

      I was in front of Ma Rogers house on East Fourth which was right next door to a synagogue, in fact they shared a common entranceway off of East Fourth. I’m less than ten years old at the time. Uncle Bobby hung around with which seemed to me to be a large group of friends and for some reason or other another group came onto what I suppose was their terrain and the fight broke out. I remember it because somehow my father and uncle Jim,Honey’s husband, were out in the middle of the scuffle trying to break it up or else helping Bobby. It’s vague to me but it seems another gang arrived (Uncle Billy’s?)and the matter was settled in Bobby’s favor. Fortunately,in those days it was all fists. It’s quite muddled now but snatches of it come into my memory when I think of the St. Patrick’s day parade.

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