By Michael Howard Saul and Sonja Sharp
March 17, 2015
The first gay organization in the history of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade marched up Fifth Avenue on Tuesday, but its presence failed to quell criticism from politicians and others who accused the event’s organizers of discrimination.
For the second year in a row, Mayor Bill de Blasio and other elected officials, including City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, boycotted the event because they said the organizers excluded Irish gay groups.
The organizers ban displays of gay identification, such as banners, flags and pins, which effectively prevents openly gay groups from marching. But this year, for the first time, they made an exception, allowing Out@NBCUniversal, a group of gay employees at NBC, to march behind its own banner.
The NBC group was one of the last contingents to march, starting its procession up Fifth Avenue a bit before 4 p.m., after NBC’s local station stopped broadcasting the event.
The group of about 60 people marched behind a banner that read: “Out@NBCUniversal: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Straight Ally Employee Alliance.”
“It is pretty awesome,” said one member of the NBC delegation, 30-year-old Kaitlin Becker, who identified herself as gay. “I’m very excited. It’s super important. It’s the first time ever…. It feels great to be a part of it and this is just the first step in a long journey.”
One man standing near Central Park gave the delegation the thumbs-down sign, prompting Rob Buchanan, an NBC producer, to confront him.
Mr. Buchanan ran up to the man and told him he was the first person on the route to respond negatively. “So, be proud of that,” he said before being pulled away.
Several people along the parade route said “thank you” as the NBC group passed by.
Mr. de Blasio and others, including a number of gay activists who held a protest along the parade route, said the NBC group was insufficient. They said it was a corporate organization that isn’t directly connected to Irish culture.
The mayor described the organizers’ decision to permit the NBC group to march as “progress” but said “if someone’s LGBT and they want to celebrate Irish heritage, they should have a right like anyone else.”
Mr. de Blasio, who last year became the first mayor to boycott the parade in 20 years, pointed out that Boston allowed gay organizations to march for the first time this year.
John Dunleavy, chairman of the 253-year-old parade, said he wasn’t disappointed by the mayor’s boycott. “If he doesn’t want to march, that’s his decision,” he said.
Mr. Dunleavy also defended the protesters, who accused the parade organizers of bigotry. “They have every right to protest,” he said. “This is why you have the freedoms you have in America.”
Mr. Dunleavy declined to comment on whether the organizers would be willing to include other gay groups next year. “I never predict,” he said. “I take one day at a time.”
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and the grand marshal at this year’s parade, was all smiles at the start of the event. When asked about the mayor not being there, he raised his arms, shrugged and replied, “I’m just happy for everyone who is.”
The mayor held a breakfast Tuesday morning for the Irish community at Gracie Mansion and attended Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Mr. de Blasio, who has a history of tardiness, showed up late to Mass, making it at least the third St. Patrick’s Day-related event in recent weeks that he was late for.
Two beer companies, Guinness and Heineken that had withdrew their corporate sponsorship last year because of the organizers’ policy on gay groups resumed their sponsorship this year because of the NBC group’s inclusion.
Emmaia Gelman, a member of Irish Queers, a group that has been protesting the parade organizers’ policy on gay groups since the early 1990s, praised Mr. de Blasio for boycotting. But she denounced the NBC group, calling it a scandal that the organization has “let itself be used this way.”
Allen Roskoff, a longtime gay activist, said the NBC organization was“undercutting our community” by marching and “basically thumbing their nose at the Irish LGBTQ community.”
“They have betrayed us all,” he said.
Craig Robinson, chief diversity officer for NBCUniversal, said he hoped the NBC group would “usher in a new era of inclusion.” Because NBC had a relationship with the parade committee, he said, there was an “opportunity to help change people’s minds.”
Mr. Robinson said he understood why other gay groups were upset, but he said “this was not about us trying to steal anyone’s thunder.”
Betty O’Malley, a 76-year-old retired court reporter from Delaware, traveled to New York to protest Cardinal Dolan for participating in the event. She held a sign that said “Dolan Shame.”
“Cardinal Dolan caved to the homosexual group,” she said. “It’s exalting their lifestyle.”
Dennis Dunn, whose face was painted with the colors of the Irish flag, lambasted Mr. de Blasio’s decision to boycott.
“He deserves to get hammered by the Irish community because he’s ignored us,” he said.