How are St. Patrick's Day parades connected to Irish-American identity? Why have they become political hotspots in the debate over LBGT rights? What's different about the 2015 parades?
March 11, 2015, BY Molly O'Brien-Foelsch
After years of controversy, the Boston and New York St. Patrick's Day parades will each include an LGBT group in 2015. Professor Adrian Mulligan, geography, discusses the Irish identities these parades have promoted and excluded, a counter-parade that has emerged and the narratives these events articulate. He says examining topics from a geographical point of view can be useful for understanding civil society, the function of public space, the role of certain symbolic places and times, questions of identity politics, the role of governance and of the state, and the temporal and spatial management of the interests of different groups.
Q. Why examine parades through a geographic lens?
A. Parades are interesting from a geographer's perspective. Take any parade you're familiar with and ask yourself: If it had taken place in another part of town, on a different street, at a different time, on a different date, would it have held the same meaning? That in itself gets at the heart of how parades are geographical, insofar as they don't just take place anywhere at anytime, but rather they take place in specific places at specific times.
Geographers consider parades as a form of territoriality — a means by which people, often belonging to an organization, assert power by controlling a certain space and time and consequently naturalizing that power. Like many forms of territoriality, parades might look like fairly unproblematic expressions of group identity, but that's only because the messy stuff stays behind the scenes. The organizers determine the theme, the order and the participants; any objections or alternative narratives become muted or masked to members of the public, who consequently don't miss what was never there — which only reinforces the power of those in charge.
Q. You have written that the New York St. Patrick's Day parade has "historically been a crucial site for annually reproducing narratives of Irishness." What are those narratives? Whom do they include and exclude?
A. Irish-Americans have celebrated their identity through St. Patrick's Day parades in the U.S. since the 19th century. The parades were a means by which Irish immigrants and their descendants overcame nativist hostility and negative stereotyping by proving that they were upstanding citizens — insofar as their being entrusted with a principal city thoroughfare for the day.
The term 'narrative' can get us thinking about how we forge group identity, and how we tell ourselves stories about who we are, where we came from and where we are going. These stories are historical and geographical. It is possible to go further, however, and ask: Who is telling the story? Could it be told differently? Are any groups typecast? Has anyone been left out? Parades can be considered as visible public manifestations of that story, and consequently provide a useful window into how folks have thought of themselves through changing contexts.
In my work I've considered how these parades over the years have both represented and reinforced various notions of national identity (both Irish and American), along with masculine, racial, socio-economic and straight identities. The St. Patrick's Day parade in New York City, for example, can be considered a carefully choreographed expression of group identity, organized by the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) who also act as "gate-keepers" of a sort by deciding which organizations get to march under their own banner. Given the fact that these parades are arguably strict Roman Catholic religious observances, the AOH has always denied Irish LGBT groups from marching under their own banners, although it should be noted that they do not ban individuals who happen to be homosexual from marching with other groups.
Their stance in this regard was endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995, which ruled in favor of the organizers of the Boston parade, the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council, in their battle to deny entry to an Irish LGBT organization. Here, the court ruled essentially that since a parade is a form of expression, and not just motion, the organizer's First-Amendment right to express themselves freely however they saw fit should be protected, thus permitting them to continue to deny entry to Irish LGBT groups and establishing a precedent for the New York City parade, too.
The problem with the Supreme Court ruling however, at least from a geographical point of view, is that it fails to consider whether there are symbolic spaces and times in a society (for example, Fifth Avenue on St. Patrick's Day) where certain messages gain amplification by those who control them. While groups denied entry to these symbolic spaces and times are perfectly free to go have their own parade in some other space and time, it kind of misses the point and doesn't do much to help foster more tolerance and inclusiveness in society.
Q. An alternative and now very successful "St. Pat's for All" parade is held in the New York Borough of Queens. What narratives of Irishness does this alternative parade convey, and how are those narratives connected to the parade location?
A. After years of protesting the exclusion of Irish LGBT groups from the New York St. Patrick's Day parade, in 2000 a number of individuals founded the 'St. Pat's for All' parade in the Borough of Queens on a different weekend. The theme of this 'counter-parade' is to celebrate Irish culture and heritage regardless of nationality, race, ethnicity or sexuality. Consequently, it includes not only Irish LGBT groups, but also community members from the Woodside and Sunnyside neighborhoods. These groups celebrate the valor of the San Patricio Battalion (who fought for Mexico in the U.S.-Mexico War) and Bernardo O'Higgins (the first president of an independent Chile). What's more, the parade has received the official endorsement of previous New York Mayor Bloomberg and now Mayor de Blasio, both of whom boycott the Fifth Avenue Parade because of its exclusion of Irish LGBT groups.
Q. What led to the change allowing LGBT groups to march in this year's "traditional" parades?
A. In New York, an LGBT group with no apparent Irish connections, OUT@ NBC Universal, was permitted entry — significantly after an NBC affiliate purchased the broadcast rights from the AOH. Irish LGBT groups welcome the move but are nonetheless still banned and plan to protest what they consider to be the parade's continued homophobic and discriminatory message. In Boston, Mayor Walsh attempted to broker a deal in 2014 that would have permitted members of an organization affiliated with Mass Equality to march, namely LGBT Veterans for Equality. That attempt was unsuccessful, but this year the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council has permitted a fellow veterans group named OutVets to march, carrying a rainbow banner incorporating stripes for the various branches of the military. This year's parade season will be, therefore, an interesting one to analyze, particularly from a geographical perspective — maybe everyone finally will get to be Irish on St. Patrick's Day.
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