NEW YORK — The nation’s largest St. Patrick’s Day parade kicked off Thursday in New York City, and for the first time in decades, gay activists are not decrying it as an exercise in exclusion.
The first of roughly 200,000 marchers began striding up Fifth Avenue just after 11 a.m. in a procession of throbbing pipes and drums, smiling dignitaries and waving flags.
As always, it was a celebration of Irish heritage, but this year’s parade also stands to close a long chapter of controversy. A year after a limited easing of the parade’s prohibition on gay groups, organizers now have opened the lineup more broadly to include activists who protested the ban for years.
“I never thought I’d see the day when I could march up Fifth Avenue in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade with my husband,” said Brendan Fay, chairman of the Lavender and Green Alliance, as the parade began. “When we started in 1991, after getting arrested so many times for protesting the parade, wow, what a moment this is.”
Besides marking firsts, this year’s parade also looks back, honoring the centennial of Ireland‘s Easter Rising against British rule. It is also being broadcast live in Ireland and the United Kingdom for the first time.
The grand marshal of the parade is former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell of Maine, who negotiated the Northern Ireland peace accord.
Organizers aim to invoke “the lessons of sacrifice and heroism, of love and tolerance, embodied in the Irish spirit,” parade board chairman John Lahey said when the plans were announced.
New York’s parade traces its history to 1762.
For years, organizers said gay people could participate but couldn’t carry signs or buttons celebrating their sexual identities. Organizers said they didn’t want to divert focus from honoring Irish heritage.
Irish gay advocates sued in the early 1990s, but judges said the parade organizers had a First Amendment right to choose participants in their event.
Over the years, activists protested along the route, and some politicians boycotted. The pressure grew in 2014, when Mayor Bill de Blasio refused to march, and Guinness and Heineken withdrew their sponsorships.
Gay activists who have been protesting the parade for 25 years said they were thrilled to be included in Thursday’s celebration.
“This is a massive victory,” said Irish-American Emmaia Gelman, 41, who was repeatedly arrested at parade protests and met her longtime partner at one.