To understand a gay veteran group’s fight to be included in Boston’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade, one must understand the parade itself, an inextricable part of the city’s culture and history.
It is simultaneously Mardi Gras, a Super Bowl tailgate, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and, yet, an intimate block party all in one. There are kilts, bagpipes, beer and so, so much green.
For several hours each year, half a million people turn out — often braving below-freezing temperatures — to watch or partake in this winding, five-mile manifestation of civic pride, Irish heritage and American patriotism in one of the nation’s oldest cities. The route famously winds through South Boston, a historically blue-collar, Irish American, conservative neighborhood; if the parade is the backbone of Boston, then “Southie” is at its beating heart.
However, for almost as long as anyone can remember, the parade has become infamous for what it did not include: Gay and lesbian groups had been shut out from marching for decades, with a brief exception in 1993, when the Irish American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston (GLIB) won a state court mandate to be allowed in the parade after a brutal local fight. While it was seen as a victory, GLIB marchers that year endured a “5-mile gauntlet of hostility” along the parade route, according to the Boston Globe, and the subsequent legal battle reached all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1995, the high court ruled unanimously that the parade organizers, the Allied War Veterans Council of South Boston, were allowed to ban GLIB or any other group on the basis of free speech. The decision was a blow to the LGBT community. For years afterward, many refused to even watch the parade. Boston’s mayor at the time, Thomas M. Menino, refused to take part in the parade for almost two decades.
Still, South Boston evolved slowly. The state made same-sex marriage legal in 2004. The horrific Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 deeply affected the city.
To the chagrin of some longtime residents, the once solidly blue-collar neighborhood is now home to million-dollar condos and a rapidly gentrifying population. And last August, after a months-long fight, Starbucks won the right to open a coffee shop at Broadway and L Street in South Boston.
The parade eventually followed suit. The first indication of a sea change occurred one day in late 2014, when a man showed up at Bryan Bishop’s office looking as though he might curse him out.
At the time, Bishop was Boston’s deputy commissioner for veterans services. He was also the founder of a fledgling nonprofit organization called OutVets, a support and advocacy group for LGBT veterans. The group had earlier that year attracted some attention for being the first LGBT veterans group to march in Boston’s Veterans Day parade.
Bishop’s visitor that day, Brian Mahoney, was the commander of the Allied War Veterans Council — and someone whose love for South Boston was only eclipsed by his ability to make a deal. (“He was a funny guy,” Bishop said of Mahoney. “He could sell water to a fish.”) And he actually was about to curse — just not in the way Bishop expected.
“You guys have every right to march in that ‘expletive deleted’ parade,” Bishop remembered Mahoney telling him. “You’re what’s right with this country.”
Thus began the untangling of decades of tension that had cast a dark cloud over the annual parade. They talked for an hour that day — “as veterans,” Bishop said, leaving politics out of it. By the time they were done, Mahoney had persuaded Bishop to pay a visit to the Fitzgerald VFW post in South Boston for the council’s next meeting.
“He said, ‘I think I can whip up enough support’” for OutVets to march in the 2015 parade, Bishop said. So he did. It was not a cordial meeting, he remembered. One council member asked him why OutVets had to be in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade when they had their “own” parade in June.
“The way he said ‘gay pride,’ it was like he wanted to vomit,” Bishop said. “I said, ‘This is ridiculous. … I’m offended because you’re sitting here telling me that my service is less than your service simply because I’m gay.’”
Bishop left the room annoyed and angry. When Mahoney emerged after the vote, Bishop told him he assumed OutVets would not be allowed to march after such a contentious meeting.
“In his Southie brogue, he says ‘Bry, take me home,'” Bishop said, emphasizing Mahoney’s accent. “‘Yes, you ahh. I was the deciding vote.’”
News of OutVets’ inclusion that year made national headlines. Bishop said the response along the parade route was overwhelming. Thousands of people held signs, waved rainbow flags as OutVets marched by. “My Vietnam vet guys had tears from their eyes the entire time they were walking,” Bishop said. “They didn’t get that kind of response when they came home.”
Still, precedent did not mean they would be welcomed with open arms the following year. In 2016, after some resistance, OutVets was again approved to march in the parade, but this time the group was positioned far away from all the other veterans groups, near the very back, Bishop said.
Later that year, Mahoney, OutVets’ most vocal advocate on the council, died. Rumors began circulating that this might affect the group’s parade participation.
Those rumors came to fruition last week when OutVets’ application to march in this year’s parade was rejected. The suddenness caught Bishop off guard. “This is a travesty,” he told Reuters. “We thought that Boston once again had moved beyond bigotry and discrimination.”
At first, the council reportedly offered no reason for the rejection. The following day, OutVets was told that their application had been late, Bishop said. They were also told that their logo — a rainbow banner with the words “Pride Honor Sacrifice” over the image of a folded flag — violated the parade’s code of conduct.
OutVets challenged those reasons, pointing out that no deadline appeared on the application and that the group had marched in the parade the past two years with the exact same logo.
“This is one of the biggest political miscalculations I’d ever seen,” said Dee Dee Edmondson, the attorney who does legal work for OutVets. “They literally thought they had a bargaining chip in making us take off the rainbow flag. … I think the national political climate and the pushback on LGBT rights is probably a little bit a part of it. I think also because of what is happening on the national level, we stood our ground and did not compromise.”
Immediately, parade grand marshal Dan Magoon, an Army veteran and founder of Massachusetts Fallen Heroes, resigned and told the council in a statement that participating in a parade that excluded OutVets “does not coincide with the work I do advocating for all veterans,” reported local blog Universal Hub.
Corporate sponsors and political leaders also condemned the decision, including Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R), Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (D) and numerous city, state and federal elected officials.
“I will not tolerate discrimination in our city in any form,” Walsh said in a statement. “I will not be marching in the parade unless this is resolved. Anyone who values what our city stands for should do the same.”
The pressure seemed to be effective. On Friday night, the Allied War Veterans Council met again, at the encouragement of U.S. Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.). According to Bishop, a large number of younger veterans showed up and passionately testified that times had changed.
Before the meeting ended, the council voted again — unanimously — to allow OutVets to march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The decision was permanent.
OutVets posted a statement on Facebook late Friday night in response to the reversal, saying it would proudly accept the invitation to march. “We are honored and humbled by all the outpouring of support that has been displayed for our LGBTQ Veterans — who are one of the most unrepresented demographic in our Veterans community,” the statement read.
Bishop said he is encouraged and feels optimistic about how Boston will continue to evolve when it comes to LGBT equality and veterans. “It’s really started a good conversation about veterans, no matter who they are, no matter what banner they march under,” he said.