For the first time in the 230-year history of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade, members of an LGBT group, the Irish Lesbian & Gay Organisation, are allowed to march in the parade on March 16, 1991.
New York Mayor David N. Dinkins gives up the traditional lead-off position in the parade and instead marches with the Irish gay group more than two hours later. It marks the first time in memory that a New York City mayor has declined to lead a St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
On March 14, Dinkins agrees to march with the gay group “for reasons we all understand” as part of a compromise to get the group into the parade. The Mayor and the 135-member gay group are guests of Division 7 of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the midtown Manhattan chapter of the fraternal order that sponsors and organizes the parade.
Normally, politicians jockey for high-profile spots in the parade, which is billed as the world’s largest civilian parade. No mayor has ever been in the difficult spot of trying to resolve such a public dispute between Irish-American groups, which have long been political powers in New York City, and gay groups, which have gained strength and are an important part of the coalition that helped bring Dinkins to office.
Police officials have 3,100 officers along the parade route to provide security for the estimated one million spectators and 150,000 people marching in the parade. The parade costs the city more than $500,000 in overtime for police, sanitation, traffic, and other employees.
Dinkins is booed for nearly 40 blocks, briefly showered with beer, and dodges two thrown beer cans as he and other elected officials march up Fifth Avenue with the gay Irish group.
Governor Mario M. Cuomo also gives up a place at the front of the parade, marching with a group of handicapped children in wheelchairs that had been denied a place among the bands and bagpipes until they threatened to sue the parade organizers.
As in previous years, some marchers wear green sashes reading, “Free Joe Doherty,” referring to the Irish Republican Army soldier jailed in New York City. Others wear yellow ribbons to honor soldiers returning home from the Persian Gulf war. But the dispute about the homosexuals is the focus for much of the march.
After the parade, Dinkins says although he expected to draw protests for marching with the lesbian and gay group, he is surprised by the depth of anger directed against him and the homosexual marchers. “It was like marching in Birmingham, Alabama during the civil rights movement,” he said. “I knew there would be deep emotions, but I did not anticipate the cowards in the crowd. There was far, far too much negative comment.”