Patience (in Activism) Is a Virtue: Gay Groups Finally March in Boston St. Pat's Parade

Sometimes cultural shifts take 20 years.


Demanding the same access to drunken fistfights as everybody else.
Credit: Tim Pierce / photo on flickr

Sunday marked the first time in the history of Boston's 114-year-old St. Patrick's Day Parade that gay groups were allowed to march with everybody else. This has been a battle for decades. It's worth pointing out the end point because it is another example of how cultural problems are to be resolved by cultural pressure, even if it does take some time.

The South Boston Allied War Veterans Council had refused to allow gay groups into the parade, a decision that has been causing controversy since the 1990s. In a 1995 Supreme Court case, Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, & Bisexual Group of Boston, the justices ruled unanimously that the council had a right to do so under the First Amendment. Then Justice David Souter wrote about excluding gay groups: "One important manifestation of the principle of free speech is that one who chooses to speak may also decide what not to say," meaning the parade organizers could not be forced to host a group that conveyed a message with which the organizers did not agree.

Boston mayors started boycotting the event after the ruling, but this time Mayor Marty Walsh was on hand, saying it was the start of a "new chapter" of Boston's history.

The parade's first gay group was a collection of military veterans, appropriately enough. OutVets marched in the parade, as did Boston Pride, who was just approved last week, according to the Assocated Press. The AP noted that some Catholic groups, like the Knights of Columbus, declined to march as a result.

Yes, it would have been faster had the Supreme Court ruled the other way, but it also would have been terribly wrong, and it would not have been embraced by the community. It took an additional 20 years for culture to change enough to bring gays into the parade as groups (certainly there were gay people in the parade in other groups all along), but look at all the controversy that didn't happen with this shift. The change was barely noticed, whereas the battle over inclusion was top national news back then.

But that's the way it's supposed to happen. This didn't involve discrimination based on government rules and regulations, like bans on gay marriage recognition or keeping gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. Those are issues that require government involvement in order to resolve (and even then, a whole lot of cultural shoving and pushing was needed to get majorities on board). The inclusion in the parade was not a government matter, just as with other free-association controversies like participation in the Boy Scouts. It's up to the citizenry to do the work to push for changes. Yes, it takes time. But the advantage is that it will stick, and there will be less pushback and resentment when change happens.