New York

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2007, 12:00am

The trees may still be bare and the lawns barren. But New York City's spring unofficially starts on Saturday when the famous Fifth Avenue St Patrick's Day Parade dyes the city green. As the largest St Patrick's Day parade in the world, the more than two- centuries-old carnival has become a major annual city tradition and global tourism attraction.

'On this day, everyone is Irish ... this is a great parade for all to come out and experience. Everyone is welcome!' encourages the website of, the official guide for the city.

But for some people, participating in the parade with pride and dignity is only a dream, and that includes one of New York's most powerful politicians, City Council speaker Christine Quinn. As New York's first elected female speaker, this daughter of an Irish immigrant couple should have been an icon for the parade that sets out to celebrate her own heritage. That is, if she didn't insist on marching in the parade as what she is - an openly lesbian New Yorker.

The parade organiser, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish Catholic fraternal organisation, has been declining gay groups' requests to march since 1991. Over the years there have even been clashes that have led to the arrests of some gay rights advocates and a court ruling that the organiser cannot be forced against religious belief to include gay people in the parade.

Ms Quinn didn't attend the parade last year because she was not allowed to wear a gay pride pin. This year she is flying to Dublin to take part in their four days of celebration where she is welcome to march as a gay.

Ms Quinn's decision was widely praised in the gay and lesbian community.

'The message is [the Dublin parade] is the authentic parade, if they are OK with her being there as a gay. How is it that one in the United States which is trying to celebrate Irish history is not doing what the Irish are doing?' said Kim Fountain, of an advocacy organisation that monitors bias against gays.

Ms Fountain's organisation documents hundreds of hate crimes against gays every year, including several murders and bashings.

'We are living in a society where politicians, the religious right or comedians on TV are still saying bad things about gay people,' said Ms Fountain. 'And it's not only to gay folks - if you are a person of colour or immigrant or poor person, they do the same thing to you, they'll do everything to try to wipe out difference.'

That thought is an inspiration for Brendan Fay, the founder of New York's Inclusive St Patrick's Day Parade that was held on March 4 this year in the borough of Queens. Compared to the parade on Fifth Avenue, which attracts 150,000 people each year, Fay's parade with 2,000 participants is modest.

But the diversity of the participants makes it unique in the city. In its eight-year history, the parade has recruited not only gays but also immigrants and political participants such as Senator Hillary Clinton and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Fay, a 42-year-old film director who is an Irish gay Catholic, was arrested several times when he fought for his rights to march on Fifth Avenue in the late 1990s. 'Our parade has ... become this growing seed of a new model of public celebration where different people celebrate together, and love each other,' said Fay. 'To me that's New York.'