St. Patrick's Day Without Beer? Yep, If It Means Standing Up for LGBT Rights

Guinness, Heineken, and Samuel Adams just say no to parades that exclude LGBT groups.

Gay rights supporters protest against the exclusion of the gay community from the St. Patrick's Day Parade on March 17, 2014, during the annual New York event. (Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

Staff Writer Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Over the years, politicians in both Boston and New York City have boycotted St. Patrick's Day parades over organizers' refusal to allow LGBT groups to march. This year Boston's new mayor, Marty Walsh, who is Irish American, boycotted the city's parade, and in New York City, Bill de Blasio also set the tone for his tenure by standing with the City Council and refusing to march down Fifth Avenue.

The thing is, St. Patrick's Day parade organizers are used to political boycotts—and standing up to a politician makes you look strong. But how about a boycott by a brewery? On St. Patrick's Day—America’s unofficial drink-lots-and-lots-of-beer holiday—that’s unprecedented.

Yes, when it comes to ensuring LGBT groups have the right to openly march in the nation's St. Patrick's Day parades, it looks like a new sheriff’s in town: beer companies.

Thanks to successful pressure from GLAAD and the Stonewall Inn, famed Irish brewer Guinness pulled its sponsorship of the 253rd annual St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York City over organizers' refusal to allow LGBT groups to participate.

Guinness' withdrawal came on Sunday after GLAAD and the Stonewall Inn, the birthplace of America's gay rights movement, announced that the Stonewall would "drop Guinness beer from its shelves beginning Monday, March 17, following the beer company's decision to stand by its sponsorship of the New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade."

Guinness swiftly released a statement indicating that it supported diversity and equality and had hoped "that the policy of exclusion would be reversed for this year's parade. As this has not come to pass, Guinness has withdrawn its participation." The company also said it will "continue to work with community leaders to ensure that future parades have an inclusionary policy."

The company's decision came on the heels of Heineken's and Samuel Adams' withdrawing their sponsorship of Boston's parade, which also bans LGBT groups from marching.

Why do the parades ban LGBT groups in the first place? If they're supposed to be celebrations of Irish heritage and culture, and there are 34.1 Americans who claim Irish descent, obviously Irish American LGBT folks are everywhere.

It turns out it's perfectly legal for the organizers to refuse to allow LGBT groups to march.

Indeed, the last time an LGBT group openly marched in the New York City parade was in 1991. That year, the parade's organizers, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, "the oldest and largest Irish Catholic organization in the United States," refused to grant a permit to the city's Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization.

"I suppose the notion that Irish people can be lesbian and gay is quite remarkable for some people, so I guess the St. Patrick's parade committee was quite shocked," Anne Maguire, the then spokeswoman for the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, said to The New York Times about the permit refusal.

Mayor David Dinkins threw a wrench in those exclusionary plans by brokering a deal that allowed the group to march with another group.

Hostile spectators greeted the LGBT marchers and their allies with boos and thrown beer cans. Dinkins, who marched along with the group to show his support, said that every boo and jeer he heard along the route "strengthened my resolve" and convinced him that marching with the group was "the right thing to do."

The debate headed to the courts, and in 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision on Hurley v. Irish American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston, declaring that forcing private sponsors of the parade to allow LGBT marchers to participate would be a violation of their freedom of expression.

In response to the beer companies, the nation's largest civil rights organization for Catholics is now calling for a boycott of Guinness, Heineken, and Samuel Adams beers. Catholic League president Bill Donohue claimed in his statement, "No gay person has ever been barred from marching in any St. Patrick's Day parade, anymore than the parade bans pro-life Catholics or vegetarian Catholics; they simply cannot march under their own banner." Donohue added, "The parade has one cause: honoring St. Patrick. Those who disagree do not have to march—that's what diversity is all about." 

That may be Donohue's view, but if you ask most parade spectators who St. Patrick is, they probably can't even tell you. They're there for the celebratory atmosphere—they're there for the beer, not to honor the patron saint of Ireland. Furthermore, growing numbers of even the most conservative Americans are bucking discriminatory stances on LGBT issues. A column of LGBT marchers led by Bill de Blasio would likely be greeted very differently in 2014 than Dinkins and the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization were more than two decades ago.

Meanwhile, St. Patrick's Day parade organizers in Chicago seem to know how to dye the Chicago River green, honor St. Patrick, and welcome that city’s LGBT Irish Americans to the table. Perhaps Boston's and New York City's organizers should give them a call to figure out how everyone can come together to honor the spirit of liberty and inclusiveness present in Irish culture and traditions. And if they don't want to call organizers in Chicago, how about go straight to Erin, where LGBT groups are welcome to march in Dublin's parade.

As for Guinness, the Stonewall Inn says it's proud to keep on serving the famous stout, on St. Patrick's Day and beyond. 

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