March to the rainbow

Pub date March 8, 2011

IRISH Whether you live in Dallas or settle in SoMa, March is the month when Americans throw out their stale V-Day candy hearts and bring out the greens. Not the ones you smoke, silly, we’re talking St. Patrick’s Day here. Along with the rest of the country, San Franciscans will bite into green bagels, take a swig of something Irish, and head down to the St. Patrick’s Day parade (ours is early this year, Saturday, March 12) to join in the Celtic revelry. But — typical — there’s something about our Irish celebrations that set SF apart — our St. Patrick’s Day parade is one of few in the country to welcome the LGBT community to the party.

While it’s easy to forget over here at the end of the rainbow, most St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the U.S.A. have a strict no-gays policy when it comes to who is allowed to march — which is sad and ironic considering that Irish Americans once faced the same discrimination that their parade associations now seem to be condoning when it comes to gay Americans.

Three cities in the country allow gay groups to participate in their St. Paddy’s parades: Queens, N.Y., SF, and Key West, Fla. (editor’s note: not exactly true, as it turns out — check out our correction for the other bergs around the country to welcome the queer community into the St. Paddy’s fold) The Queens parade was created as an all-inclusive alternative to the New York City parade, which still does not allow LGBT groups to participate despite years of protests — after Irish pride, these demonstrations may be NYC’s second highest profile St. Paddy’s Day tradition. This year the president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, has refused to participate in the Big Apple’s march on account of the parade’s regrettable policy. She’s not the only one: Boston’s mayor has refused to march in his city’s parade for the past few years.

But here in the country’s queer mecca, we can shake our heads in smug, gay disapproval at the St. Patty’s wars of the rest of the country. SF has a history of hoisting our rainbow shamrock high: this city’s parade is all-inclusive, which the president of SF’s Irish Societies (the organization behind the parade and concurrent Civic Center Plaza festival), Dermot Philpot is glad about.

“We include everybody, and we look for them to be in the parade,” Philpot told us in a recent phone interview. “When we include LGBT groups and individuals in our parade, it shows that [the SF Irish community] is part of a larger community.” Although there are no nominally gay groups marching in the parade, unlike in years past, Philpot says he hopes “[the LGBT community] feels included and that they will be there.”

The San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band is one LGBT group that has high-stepped for Irish pride, making its most recent St. Patrick’s Day parade appearance in 2000. Doug Litwin, who is the secretary for the band’s board of directors, says the band had been participating in the parade even before he and his clarinet joined the group in 1985. Although marching on St. Paddy’s Day is a subject of contention for queer groups in other parts of the country, for the SF Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band the parade is about as run-of-the-mill as any. “The bottom line is in San Francisco it’s just not that big of a deal to be openly gay anymore,” says Litwin. “Our band was declared the official band of San Francisco by two different mayors. Some of these parade organizers practically beg us to march.”

Openly gay senator Mark Leno is another familiar face on parade day. Leno is unable to attend the event this year because of an out-of-town speaking engagement, but says he’s been included in the parade as far back as 1998, when he was first elected to office. “I’ve always been proud of the fact that San Francisco’s parade is inclusive. And as long as I have been in office, I’ve always felt welcome in the parade.” Only once has he ever gotten negative reactions from the parade crowds. As Leno recalls, that year he had opted to ride through the parade in a Jaguar. “I heard booing and hissing right as I got up to Second Street.” At issue: red-blooded parade watchers were upset that Leno hadn’t chosen an American car for his cruise through the crowds.


Sat/12, 11:30 a.m., free

Begins at Market and Second streets, SF

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