Come Saturday, Uptown Charlotte will be filled with a sea of green, as Charlotteans of all stripes come together to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at this year’s annual parade and festival. Event-goers will be black and white, Irish and non-Irish, Americans of Irish descent, rich and poor, gay and straight.
But, though LGBT people will be present, they will also be invisible. And, that’s because the Charlotte St. Patrick’s Day Parade Foundation actively forbids the presence of rainbow flags and the mere utterance of the words “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender” during their event.
It’s a sad reality, but the same kind of anti-LGBT prejudice that seems to go hand-in-hand with St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in New York City and Boston has a home all its own in Charlotte, too.
Exclusion a norm in U.S.
The exclusion of LGBT people from St. Patrick’s Day parades and other events is nothing new. In Boston and New York City, two of the most iconic St. Patty’s events in the world, anti-LGBT discrimination has been a decades-long “tradition” for organizers there. Irish LGBT people in Boston even sued their parade’s organizers, the Allied War Veterans Council (AWVC), in 1992 and 1993. The Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, or GLIB, marched in 1993, facing, Slate says, “slurs, spit, smoke bombs and snowballs” from spectators. In 1994, the AWVC canceled the parade altogether in an effort to keep LGBT Irish-Americans out of the event.
In Charlotte, we’re lucky we’ve never faced such brazen and violent anti-LGBT discrimination. The Charlotte St. Patrick’s Day Parade Foundation has never quite so forcefully excluded LGBT marchers. In fact, the Charlotte Royals Rugby Football Club has marched for years. Charlotte Pride Band will march this year. Charlotte Pride, on whose board I sat until recently, marched last year, too.
But, LGBT Charlotteans’ inclusion in the local event has come at the cost of our basic dignity and respect. The Parade Foundation interprets its official policies as forbidding the presence of rainbow flags and organizers have in the past censored the words “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender” from marching contingents’ biographies, delivered by emcees as groups march through Independence Square.
Put quite simply and succinctly, Charlotte’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade organizers believe in LGBT inclusion, insofar as those LGBT people who participate remain silent and invisible as it regards who they are. In practice, it’s little different from a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” kind of policy.
Local organizer: We are inclusive
Parade Foundation board member Frank Hart doesn’t see it that way, though. I reached out to him and a fellow board member before writing this commentary. In our email correspondence, Hart distanced the Charlotte parade from what’s happened in New York and Boston and said he believes local organizers have been inclusive and fair.
“We have tried to be inclusive and frankly, we feel have done a great job of it over the years,” Hart told me.
And, he defended the exclusion of symbols like the rainbow flag.
“Regarding your flag, our parade rules, which we send out to all registered groups, clearly states that ‘No political or advocacy/cause banners are permitted in the parade’ and we felt that the flag advocated a political position,” Hart said.
It’s excluded because, Hart explained, “The mission statement of the parade is to celebrate the Irish culture and that’s what our main focus is.”
I followed up and asked Hart if he was aware that there are, indeed, LGBT Irish people and LGBT Americans of Irish descent, and if he felt the words “LGBT,” in and of themselves, somehow advocated a “political position.” I wanted to know if Hart felt like LGBT people simply weren’t part of whatever form of Irish culture his event is celebrating.
But, Hart didn’t answer, instead replying, “I feel that I have explained it as best as I could that we have no policies towards any specific groups and have shown that by our actions.”
Jim Thompson is a Massachusetts native who lived in Boston before moving to Rock Hill. In fact, Thompson was a founding board member of GLIB — the same group which sued Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1992. He marched with the group in Boston’s 1993 parade and he’s marched for several years in Charlotte’s event, usually with the York County chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish-Catholic fraternal organization, of which he was a charter officer of the county chapter.
Thompson didn’t know about the ban on rainbow flags or LGBT identity.
“I think it’s silly,” he told me, especially noting that “you can just look at anything in the parade and see all sorts of rainbow.”
Thompson says LGBT people simply want to be included without censorship or “sanitation,” he called it.
“These are Irish LGBT people who want to participate in a community event for St. Patrick’s Day,” Thompson said. “The sanitation of it is somewhat dishonest. I don’t see why anybody would be offended by us.”
It’s clear Hart doesn’t believe the Charlotte St. Patrick’s Day Parade Foundation is discriminating. And, it’s true LGBT groups are allowed to participate — again, only if they do so at the cost of basic recognition of who they are. But, policies that prohibit community symbols like a rainbow flag and words like “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender” are, indeed, discriminatory and prejudiced.
‘Exclusion is not an Irish thing’
Hart, like parade organizers in New York City and Boston, claim they are simply sticking up for “Irish culture.” But, across the pond, in Ireland itself, leaders say exclusion is not a cultural norm with which they are acquainted.
In 2010, it was reported that former Irish President Mary McAleese declined an invitation to be grand marshal at New York City’s 250th annual parade in 2011 precisely because of the organizers’ exclusion of LGBT people.
That was followed up in 2011 with a much stronger statement from Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore, who chastised New York City organizers in a “first-of-its-kind meeting” with prominent LGBT members of New York’s Irish community.
“What these parades are about is a celebration of Ireland and Irishness. I think they need to celebrate Ireland as it is, not as people imagine it. Equality is very much the center of who we are in our identity in Ireland,” Gilmore said. “This issue of exclusion is not Irish, let’s be clear about it. Exclusion is not an Irish thing. … I think that’s the message that needs to be driven home.”
And, let’s be clear about this: Forbidding the rainbow flag from the local parade and omitting the words “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender” from LGBT groups’ marching contingent biographies is nothing more than an attempt to keep LGBT people silenced and invisible.
Defining the rainbow flag as a “political symbol” is, by and large, a cheap excuse for exclusion. I’d argue the flag is an iconic and widely-recognized symbol of a diverse community, united by shared experiences as LGBT people, with many ideas and beliefs and of many races, ethnicities and origins — yes, even including Irish-Americans. The flag and the words “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender” only become “political” when concerted efforts are made to target LGBT people with invisibility and exclusion. There’s nothing “political,” per se, about treating any group of peoples equally and fairly and simply recognizing they exist.
Thompson, too, doesn’t believe the rainbow flag or LGBT people’s identities are inherently “political.” He wants the policies changed. Still, he’s a supporter of the parade and its organizers, who he said likely aren’t actively attempting to discriminate.
“I’ve always been thrilled with the organizers and the parade,” Thompson said. “It’s always a good time. Frankly, I was just surprised to hear about the rainbow flag issue and stripping of identities. I don’t think it was done with malice; it may be done just not understanding the situation.”
Thompson stands as a shining example — being gay and being Irish are not mutually exclusive. To separate one identity from the other is impossible. And, concerted efforts and policies to hide LGBT people from public discussion or simple recognition is fraught with anti-LGBT prejudice and bigotry, even if it is not actively intended.
Want to be inclusive? Prove it.
Hart and other Charlotte St. Patrick’s Day Parade Foundation organizers say they want to be inclusive. They say they want to be fair. I’m sure they honestly believe they are doing so. I’ll stand with Thompson to give them the benefit of the doubt and take them at their word, but they’ll have to prove their desire for inclusion. They can do so by dropping their silly, prejudiced policy forbidding rainbow flags and by stopping the active censorship of LGBT people’s existence. They can do so this year. And next year. And the year after that.
Then, and only then, we’ll know that Hart and other organizers truly mean what they say, as Charlotte continues on its city-wide journey toward truly becoming a place where all people — regardless of who they are, where they come from or who they love — can feel at home.