By Harry Keaney
They came, they protested and 17 of them were arrested.
In what has now become an annual New York ritual, more than 100 members of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization gathered, for the ninth successive year, outside the New York Public Library last Wednesday morning to highlight their continued exclusion from marching under their own banner in the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
"Queers march in Dublin, queers march in Cork, why can’t queers march in New York?" ILGO members and supporters chanted as they walked around in circles for more than an hour on the barricaded sidewalk as a band, called St. Patrick and the Queerations, played on the library steps behind.
"The AOH is anti-gay, we were born that way," they continued to chant. "We’re Irish, we’re queer, we’ll be here every year," they declared in unison.
The protesters also carried placards. "What’s St. Patrick’s Day Without the F’ries? A Sham. Rock the Sham," declared one. Another placard read, "12th July, 17th March, Same Bigots, Different Class." One placard bore a picture of the Irish gay patriot Roger Casement.
"Here we go again in 1999," said Brendan Fay of the Lavender and Green Alliance, another Irish lesbian and gay group, six of whose members were arrested the previous Sunday when they tried to march in the Bronx St. Patrick’s Parade.
"Maybe by the next century, the Hibernians might catch up with the spirit of Ireland, where all Irish people can join in the St. Patrick’s celebration," Fay said.
He added that by then, the Hibernians might also catch up with the spirit of the U.S. Catholic bishops and the archbishop of New York, Cardinal O’Connor, who, Fay said, called for an end to prejudice against homosexuals in his homily during midnight Mass last Christmas.
Fay added: "Irish Americans are great at telling people in the North of Ireland how they should get on with each other and, here on Fifth Avenue, what ought to be a wonderful celebration has turned into a display of prejudice and bigotry."
Veteran ILGO leader Anne Maguire said that this year, in a build-up to next year’s 10th anniversary of the group’s efforts to march, ILGO was distributing a petition seeking support.
"We’ve started a petition drive, we’re going to do it in the city here starting with spectators along the parade route because we find they are very supportive of us. We’re also going to distribute it in Ireland," she said.
She said she thought the exclusion of gays and lesbians was "sad at the end of the 1990s in New York City." She asked Cardinal O’Connor, in what may his last year as archbishop of New York, to "fix this."
"There’s no way we are denying our Irish heritage and culture and there’s no way we are denying we are lesbians and gay men," Maguire added.
As the protesters continued to walk around outside the public library, a police officer, one of a large contingent present, warned over a loudspeaker that anyone who blocked pedestrian or vehicular traffic would be arrested. A police photographer and videographer were also present.
"Who’s going to give us the high sign," one officer was overheard asking. "Once they charge out," came the reply from another officer.
Then, as a group of protesters calmly walked off the sidewalk onto Fifth Avenue, the police immediately closed in, arresting 12 women and five men. They were subsequently issued summonses for disorderly conduct. They are to appear in court April 19.
As those arrested were cuffed, photographed and placed in police vehicles, supporters on the sidewalks shouted "Shame, Shame, Shame . . . " and "Let Them March, Let Them March."
About an hour after two police vehicles, one carrying the women who were arrested, the other carrying the women, drove off, the 238th New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade began, just two blocks farther north on Fifth Avenue.
But, as far as ILGO and the AOH is concerned, those two mid-Manhattan blocks might as well be the chasm of the Grand Canyon.
Even after nine years.