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On Staten Island, LGBTQ groups get their own St. Patrick’s Day parade. Is this inclusion?

Views Michael O'Brien / March 16, 2024 Print this:
Photo courtesy of iStock/Svetlanais

Of the few facets of my life of which I’m most proud, being Irish, Catholic and from Staten Island would be near the top of the list.

I can vividly remember going to my sister’s dance recital when we were children, watching her tap along to “The Unicorn Song.” Staten Island has long been proud of its Irish heritage, something I relish in.

But if you love something deeply, you should not be afraid to criticize it, because you want to see it do better. I feel this about both the Staten Island community at large and the Catholic Church.

LGBTQ groups on Staten Island have been granted their own procession down the famed Forest Avenue parade route this Sunday.

For decades, the largest Saint Patrick’s Day parade on Staten Island has excluded LGBTQ groups from marching, on the basis that it would not be compatible with Catholic teaching on homosexuality. Now, for the first time ever, LGBTQ advocates on Staten Island have been granted their own procession down the famed Forest Avenue parade route this year.

But despite strides towards better treatment of LGBTQ Staten Islanders, the separate parade is not good enough. There’s no reason why activists and members of the LGBTQ community should still be banned from the main parade.

In a borough where over 50 percent of its residents identify as Catholic, I would be curious to know how many Staten Islanders, anywhere on the Catholic ideological spectrum, are familiar with Pope Francis’s recent declaration “Fiducia Supplicans,” which allows church ministers to bless same-sex couples.

As the Catholic Church under Francis pushes to make LGBTQ inclusion part of its mission, I find it challenging for the main Staten Island St. Patrick’s Day parade to stake its claim on the exclusion of LGBTQ advocates marching for religious values. The roots of Saint Patrick’s Day come from its Catholic namesake, obviously. But as anyone who is Irish will tell you, the holiday has long been a celebration of secular Irish culture and traditions, reveling in the country’s music, dances and drinks. 

There’s no reason why activists and members of the LGBTQ community should still be banned from the main parade.

I want to argue that the Staten Island parade can learn something from the implementation of “Fiducia Supplicans,” wagging my finger at parade organizers while using the Catholic Church as a shining model for institutions that strive towards LGBTQ inclusivity. But truth be told, it devastates me that LGBTQ Catholics are still unable to be married in the church.

Pope Francis is incredibly brave for implementing “Fiducia,” which I find to be the most forward-thinking church document regarding LGBTQ inclusion. It is a big, positive step forward for the church.

The pope’s bold move has been met with resistance from Christian communities throughout Africa and the Middle East, with some bishops declining to implement the declaration in their respective dioceses. Some church watchers have alleged that a schism could occur if Francis were to force every diocese to implement the document.

While the Catholic Church and Pope Francis have their hands tied in many ways, at some point, strong leaders need to take a stand for the dignity and humanity of all people, even at the risk of ideological division.

Returning to Staten Island, perhaps the parade organizers should remind themselves that the Irish community has long championed LGBTQ inclusivity, both in their home country and here in New York.

“This is not Irish or Catholic. The spirit of the Irish is in rising up and overcoming prejudice and injustice.”

Let’s not forget that Ireland, a majority Catholic country, voted to legalize gay marriage the same year the United States did. Additionally, when the blessing of same-sex unions (not couples) was rejected by the Vatican in 2021, Catholic leaders in Ireland called it a “deeply disappointing” action. And Leo Varadkar, the prime minister of Ireland, is the first openly gay minister in his country’s history.

Brendan Fay, an LGBTQ activist from eastern Ireland whose uncle immigrated to Staten Island in the 1920s, is the founder of St. Pat’s for All, an inclusive parade that began in Queens in 2000. In 1993, Fay made headlines when he and fellow LGBTQ advocate Turloch McNallis were arrested for protesting their exclusion from the Manhattan St. Patrick’s Day parade.

“Anti-LGBT prejudice and exclusion not only hurts the persons to whom it’s directed, but [it] hurts the entire community [and] divides families,” wrote Fay via email to Outreach. “This is not Irish or Catholic. The spirit of the Irish is in rising up and overcoming prejudice and injustice.”

Fay notes that Irish immigrants to the United States overcame much persecution when they first landed on America’s shores. The Irish community, once met with storefront signs that read “No Irish Need Apply,” should not be the community excluding LGBTQ people, Fay argues. “Many LGBTQ persons live with the experience of being denied a blessing, embrace or welcome from church or family,” he wrote.

After his 1993 arrest, Fay began working with LGBTQ organizers from Staten Island in the hopes of making the parade more welcoming. “Recalling the welcome and support extended to our Irish LGBT immigrants group, I feel a special bond of affection for the community here,” wrote Fay.

Under the banner of the Lavender and Green Alliance, an Irish LGBTQ group, Fay will continue fighting for his rights this Sunday, fully in tune with two compatible realities: his Irish heritage and his LGBTQ identity.

The establishment of a different parade for the gay community creates a dangerous “separate but equal” standard.

While there may be signs of change for LGBTQ inclusivity on Staten Island, the establishment of a different parade for the gay community creates a dangerous “separate-but-equal” standard, something that this country is supposed to have shed decades ago.

James Joyce, one of the literary consciences of the Emerald Isle, wrote in Finnegans Wake: “Catholic means, ‘Here comes everybody.'” Indeed, on a Staten Island that truly stood for unity during this great Irish celebration, LGBTQ advocates would march in the primary parade without fear of being who they are. And in a Catholicism that truly means “here comes everybody,” a believing gay couple would enjoy the same ability of straight couples to marry in the church.

Both Irish Americans and Catholics share one thing in common: Irishness and Catholicism, at its core, should stand for welcoming anyone of upstanding moral character onto its diasporic island and through its doors. We do not live in this version of either institution, so the fight continues.

Michael O'Brien

Michael O'Brien is a Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J., fellow at America. He graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., in 2023.

All articles by Michael O'Brien

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1 Comment
  1. The Pope’s statements in recent years proclaiming that LGBTQ people are loved and welcomed by the church once again ring untrue. The actions of the parade organizers prove that we are not in fact welcome.

    What the church can’t seem to grasp is that each of these actions push more and more LGBTQ members, families, and allies away from the church, never to return. Why should we trust what the church tells us?

    Read the link Michael included about the Staten Island leaders and officials who have reached out to the LGBTQ community in support, love, and compassion. There you will see Jesus at work. Not within the Catholic Church.

    As a gay former Catholic who came out 40 years ago I will continue to speak out against the church as long as they continue practices that are psychologically, emotionally, physically, and sexually abusive to our community. I can’t sit by idly while they cause irreparable harm. Especially to our young people. They don’t deserve to be scarred for life.

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