St. Patrick’s Day came early in Sunnyside. Children wearing bright green shamrock-shaped hats waved and smiled to the rainbow of people parading down Skillman Avenue in the St. Patrick’s Day for All Parade on Sunday. Though it was a cold March day, the spirit of love and equality fueled the crowds of dancers, marching bands, bagpipers, activists, politicians and spectators.
Many of the participants, including Mayor de Blasio, will not be marching up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue on March 17 because lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning people have been barred from openly partaking in the event with banners and as organized groups since 1991.
As a result of the ban, a hodgepodge of cultural, political and community groups formed an all-inclusive parade in Queens 15 years ago to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
“This parade celebrates diversity, inclusion and unity, and that is what this city is about,” de Blasio said. “A lot of times you have to start things in the direction of progressive values and start a process of change … and over time people take to it and understand it is the right way.”
This year, more people than ever before attended the parade, hailing from all five boroughs, Long Island, New Jersey, Boston, Washington, DC and even Ireland for the event. Elected officials from all over the city came to show support, including Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), who urged everyone to patronize the businesses in his district, “a community that supports equality for all.”
Praising the “Irish heritage that has made the city great,” de Blasio bade the crowd “Éirinn go Brách,” which means “Ireland forever” in Gaelic and informed everyone walking in the parade there would be an official after-party at Saints and Sinners pub in Woodside.
At the kickoff, parade co-chairwoman Terry McGovern, an advocate for human rights and those with HIV/AIDS, spoke of the violence and discrimination people face because of their sexual identity throughout the world, particularly in the 78 countries that criminalize being LGBTQ.
“This is not just a dispute about a small, benign matter,” McGovern said. “Irish people of all should understand this.”
Noting that her ancestors partook in Irish culture and the struggle for freedom and that the Catholic League does not own the culture, McGovern invited the crowd (all of whom were Irish for the day) to resist exclusion and celebrate.
Retired state Sen. Tom Duane also co-chaired the parade and praised the lifting of the ban on immigrants with HIV/AIDs, but added that more must be done for all immigrants.
Representatives from the Irish government said the modern island is slowly becoming a place where all citizens are treated equally. Panti Bliss, a drag queen from Dublin famous for denouncing homophobia and oppression, waved to the crowd from the backseat of a red convertible.
Children from the Keltic Dreams dance group at PS 59 in the Bronx performed traditional jigs in colorful costumes before the kickoff and children from the Niall O’Leary School of Irish Dance pranced through the parade. Girl Scout troops, soccer players from the Shannon Gael Sports Club and stilt-walkers from the Swim Strong Foundation also took part.
Members of Irish Queers carried signs with the slogan “Unicorns Not Uniforms,” denouncing the police officers, fire fighters and other city employees who march in uniform up Fifth Avenue.
Emmaia Gelman, a member of Irish Queers, lamented the way politicians have used the St. Pat’s for All Parade in the past to “have it both ways,” by marching in both Queens and Manhattan. “We made sure the parade on Fifth Avenue was presented as a problem,” Gelman said, adding that her group is very excited to have de Blasio’s support.
Lady Clover Honey, host of Channel 25’s “Under the Pink Carpet,” said this year’s parade is “the most fabulous it ever was,” and that “Part of diversity is getting out the green sequins and emeralds,” adding her delight in expressing herself as both Irish American and fabulous. “As an Irish person, the other parade gives us a bad name; we’re welcoming and accepting.”
Parade founder Brenden Fey said he felt heartened by the positive spirit and “grateful for the change taking place.”
Sunnyside resident Stephen Maneri said that he hadn’t known about the parade until Sunday, despite the fact that he is gay and lives a block away, but was amazed and overwhelmed by the show of support.
Nathan Andrews, a bagpiper from New York Scottish Pipe and Drum, played in the parade for his fifth or sixth year. He said the group supports the Queens parade’s all-inclusiveness and that the group does not march in the other parade.
“I’m happy to show support for all people,” the Rev. Donald Doherty from the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Manhattan said. “Pope Francis said ‘Who are we to judge? We’re all God’s beloved.’”
Leon Silvers was “pleasantly surprised” by the fact that there were only a few antigay protesters carrying signs referring to Sodom and Gomorrah along the parade route. “Hate was not out today, it was all love and support,” he said.
Parade co-chairwoman Kathleen Walsh-D’Arcy was pleased by the turnout among families who brought their children to an event predicated on human rights and equality. She hopes that one day everyone can march on Fifth Avenue, but said that “our parade is the Queens parade and we’ll still march here.”