What is it about being gay that is incompatible with being Irish?
Or perhaps I should say, what characteristics of those with Irish blood would prohibit one from being openly gay?
Surely it can’t be the affinity for whiskey and beer. No gay bar worth its salt is complete without a full line of taps. Indeed, a great many gay folks—particularly closeted ones—would not have the nerve to enter such an establishment without knocking back a half-dozen shots beforehand.
Nor could it be the Irish struggle against persecution, some of it exceedingly violent and typically by groups acting on religious precepts. Discrimination through America’s immigration system and in the workplace? Yup, gays know a thing or two about that.
Nor, for that matter, could it be the intense sense of pride the clovered community has accrued in persevering through such hatred and oppression, as it slowly earns both legal and cultural legitimacy from the rest of the world—pride that regularly manifests in the form of a parade. Here, too, the homosexually-inclined can relate.
Indeed, on reflection, there would seem to be far more that binds the Irish community and the gay community together than sets them apart.
So we must ask: Why is the former so adamant about shunning the latter?
I speak of the twin dramas playing out in Boston and New York City regarding those cities’ respective St. Patrick’s Day parades. In each case, the municipality’s newly-installed chief executive has refused to march so long as the event’s organizers prohibit gay groups from joining in.
In Boston, the mayor’s personal parade boycott is, itself, a tradition of sorts. The newly-retired Mayor Thomas Menino declined to march every year beginning in 1995, on the grounds that the Allied War Veterans Council, which sponsors the parade, excludes gay organizations of all sorts.
Menino’s successor, Martin Walsh—himself the son of Irish immigrants—was prepared to do the same, in keeping with his uncommonly pro-gay record as a state representative. In recent days, Walsh has appeared to broker a compromise, whereby any gay organization will henceforth be permitted to participate in the parade, provided “they do not wear shirts or hold signs bearing the word ‘gay’.” Negotiations are ongoing.
In Gotham, meanwhile, Bill de Blasio has become the city’s first mayor to abstain from marching in its own main St. Patrick’s parade—also a gay-free zone—in some two decades. The scuttlebutt there concerns the minutiae of whether de Blasio should instruct other public officials to follow his lead or allow them to make their own decisions. (Thus far, he has done the latter.) In any event, there is no immediate possibility for the parade’s gay embargo to be lifted.
As the two sides of this debate hash out the logistics of the forthcoming celebrations, I simply stand here and wonder: Why does the debate exist at all? Why do two minority groups that would seemingly make such natural allies instead find themselves engaged in a prolonged and bitter standoff?
Some Irish folk attempt to resolve this question by pointing skyward and to the Bible: They say (or imply) that being Irish is really just an extension of being Christian, and that open homosexuality is an act of defiance against God’s design and therefore an affront to any expression of Christian (and particularly Catholic) identity.
Of course, the religious component of Irish identity is inescapable, not least owing to the seemingly eternal strife between Catholics and Protestants on, and near, the Emerald Isle itself. For many Irish—in Ireland, America and everywhere else—one’s genealogy and one’s faith are one and the same.
On the other hand, roughly five percent of Irish-Americans are gay (if we assume sexuality is consistent across different ethnic groups), reminding us that any Irish organization discriminating against gays is necessarily discriminating against itself.
In any case, while one may conflate one’s ethnicity with one’s religion if one chooses, not all members of any such group do. In pluralistic America, you are free to define and express your heritage however you see fit, and we Americans do exactly that.
Yes, many Irish-Americans are observant Catholics. However, many others are not: Instead, they are observant Protestants, observant Jews, or perhaps they are not observant at all. Some of them—gasp!—might even be atheists. And, again, some of them are gay.
Does this make them any less Irish? Are organizers of a St. Patrick’s Day parade prepared to shun every member of its tribe that does not conform to a rigid, pre-approved set of cultural characteristics?
I fear that they are, and that such an attitude serves no useful purpose—not for themselves, nor for anyone else.