St. Patrick's Day Parade held in NYC amid tensions over LGBT inclusion

New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio was to become the first mayor in decades to sit out the city's traditional St. Patrick's Day parade over a dispute involving whether march participants can carry pro-gay signs. (3/17/14)

MANHATTAN - A weekend of St. Patrick's Day revelry and tensions over the exclusion of gays in some of the celebrations culminated Monday in New York, where the world's largest parade celebrating Irish heritage stepped off without the city's new mayor and Guinness beer amid a dispute over whether participants can carry pro-gay signs.

The parade of kilted Irish-Americans and bagpipers set off on a cold, gray morning. Hundreds of thousands of spectators lined Fifth Avenue, but the shivering, bundled up crowd was only about half as thick as in previous years. Revelers also gathered in Dublin and in Savannah, Ga., for green-themed celebrations.

De Blasio held the traditional St. Patrick's Day breakfast at Gracie Mansion with the Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, but boycotted the parade because organizers said marchers were not allowed to carry gay-friendly signs or identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Roman Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who greeted passing dignitaries in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral wearing a woolen Irish cap over his red cardinal's skull cap, said he supports the participation of individual gays and hoped St. Patrick's Day could be a day of unity and joy.

"I know that there are thousands and thousands of gay people marching in this parade," he said. "I know it. And I'm glad they are."

Police Commissioner William Bratton marched with a contingent of uniformed officers. Gay activists protesting the exclusion of official LGBT groups held a news conference before the march to say they didn't think the NYPD officers should participate in uniform.

About two dozen gay rights advocates protested the parade holding placards high enough for marchers to see.

"If Danny Boy were gay, would he be welcome today?" read one.

On Fifth Avenue, Richard Lynch joined the protest lineup wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, which was popular among members of the Occupy Wall Street movement. He said de Blasio should have ordered the police commissioner not to march.

"This was a big mistake," Lynch said. "It says the mayor isn't serious about LGBT inclusion in this parade."

Across the Atlantic in the land that inspired St. Patrick's Day, an estimated 400,000 tourists and locals packed the center of Dublin for Ireland's major parade. The hour-long procession featured loads of wit, brightly colored costumes and dancers, including from Ireland's gay community - and nobody had a public word to say about it.

For the second year running, the parade included groups from Ireland's gay rights groups, Dublin Pride and BeLonG To. Gay groups are a big part of the Dublin community dance groups, which wear flamboyant outfits and feature in each year's Dublin parade.

Guinness beer abruptly dropped its sponsorship of New York's parade on Sunday over the controversy. The Dublin-based company has pulled sponsorship assets, including on-air presence, parade participation and any promotional materials that weren't already printed, although the beer maker had already made a payment to parade organizers, spokeswoman Alix Dunn said.

Other beer companies earlier joined the boycotts, with Sam Adams withdrawing its sponsorship of Boston's parade and Heineken following suit in New York. That leaves Ford as the last remaining major sponsor of the Manhattan parade.

De Blasio's decision to skip the parade underscores lingering political tensions over gay rights issues in the United States. Kenny, however, refused to be sidelined, saying he'd join the procession Monday in Manhattan because the holiday is about Irishness, not sexuality.

De Blasio, in one of the first major events that Gracie Mansion has hosted under the new mayor, addressed several hundred people at the breakfast, many of Irish descent.

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Sporting a green tie, de Blasio, who is not Irish, recalled his roots growing up in Massachusetts, living in the congressional district once represented by Irish-Americans John F. Kennedy and Tip O'Neill.

He said in a toast that New York is a "city of immigrants" and residents "never forget" where they came from.

New York's parade, a tradition that predates the city itself, draws more than 1 million spectators and about 200,000 participants every March 17. It has long been a mandatory stop on the city's political trail, and includes marching bands, traditional Irish dancers and thousands of uniformed city workers.

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