The South Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade’s ban on openly gay and anti-war marchers has colored this year’s city elections, as some candidates for mayor joined in while others boycotted it.
Incumbent Mayor Thomas Menino has boycotted the parade for years. Candidate Kevin McCrea also boycotted it.
But Michael Flaherty and Sam Yoon, both city councilors and mayoral candidates, joined in the parade.
Felix G. Arroyo, a local candidate for Boston City Council, also openly boycotted the March 15 parade, drawing his first public endorse-ment—from JP state Rep. Liz Malia.
The parade has been controversial for about 15 years, since bystanders viciously insulted and attacked gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (GLBT) rights and Veterans for Peace activists who attempted to join the march. In 1995, parade organizers won a unanimous US Supreme Court ruling that affirmed their First Amendment right to exclude parade participants whose messages they did not wish to be associated with—specifically, GLBT activists. Under the First Amendment, the government can neither ban nor require speech.
“The mayor decided long ago he would not march in a parade that is not open to all residents of the city, and [that] in fact specifically banned one group of citizens,” said Menino spokesperson Dot Joyce. “He visits people that he knows in South Boston on that day to respect tradition…but he will not march in that parade.”
McCrea praised Menino’s stance and also did not take part in the parade.
“It’s very straightforward. I’m not going to participate with any group that excludes citizens on race, sexual orientation, etcetera,” McCrea said. “I think it’s hard for a candidate to say he supports equality for all citizens when [he] takes part in a parade that openly discriminates against some segment of society.”
Flaherty, a South Boston resident, was not available for a Gazette interview. In an interview with the GLBT newspaper Bay Windows last month, he reportedly noted that Southie is his community and that joining the parade does not alter his open support for GLBT rights.
Flaherty spokesperson Jon Romano told the Gazette that Menino is hypocritical because he gets credit for not marching in the parade while standing on its sidelines, shaking hands. “It’s called a ‘ploy-cott,’ not a boycott,” Romano said.
“I’m anguished over this, over my decision to march,” Yoon said in a Gazette interview. He said that, as a citywide city councilor, it would be “wrong” not to join in one of the city’s largest neighborhood events.
“I know the pain that it causes the GLBT community to be singled out and excluded,” he said.
Yoon said that GLBT supporters marched in his parade contingent—but they did not openly advertise that fact. “If I’m elected mayor, I will invite GLBT marchers to be open with the rainbow flags,” he said.
Yoon said he also has complained to parade organizers about the exclusion of GLBT and anti-war marchers.
“I think it’s only so long that this [parade organizing group] can not kind of get with the times,” Yoon said. “I think the times are calling for tolerance and openness and change.”
Yoon, who identifies himself as an evangelical Christian, said he has had “some really tough conversations with the Christian community” about his support for GLBT rights. He recently received an e-mail suggesting he is not actually Christian because he supports same-sex marriage, he said.
“It’s an opportunity for me to help bridge a real gap in our society for those who proclaim Jesus as their lord and savior and those who…fight for basic equality and civil rights,” Yoon said of the parade controversy. “There really should be no gap.”
Arroyo not only boycotted the parade, but also announced his opposition to it in a press release.
“Our campaign is about inclusion, and I will not march in a parade that excludes anyone,” Arroyo said in the press release. “I am looking forward to a St. Patrick’s Day Parade where all of Boston’s residents can participate.”
That was among the reasons he earned the endorsement of Malia, an openly lesbian state representative known for her moving State House speech during the debate on same-sex marriage. She told the Gazette that Arroyo likened the parade’s GLBT ban to ethnic discrimination in conversation with her.
“He said, ‘I don’t know how I’d feel if everybody in the world can come to this except [me] because [I’m] Puerto Rican,’” Malia said.
“I think there are times when symbolism does matter,” Malia said, praising Menino’s parade boycott. “Politics is the art of getting your-self seen and known,” she said, but “there are times when [you] really lead by example.”
Malia said she is “disappointed” with Flaherty and Yoon for marching but not out to “throw rocks at them” for it. Noting Flaherty is from Southie, she added that “there’s a little more latitude there than maybe for Sam.”
“I understand how people’s feet get stuck in the mud of the old days,” Malia said, adding it is time to get un-stuck.
Local City Councilor John Tobin said he has no political reason to even consider marching in Southie. But, he added, he agrees with Men-ino’s boycott and believes the Supreme Court decision was wrong.
“I would opt out of marching in it,” Tobin said. “The GLBT community is a huge part of this city. They’re a huge part of my district. I couldn’t participate in something they’re not allowed to participate in.”
Tobin, along with his entire family, marched in last year’s Gay Pride Parade downtown.