Carol Bullock, the executive director of the Pride Center of Staten Island, was hopeful when she went to the Church of the Blessed Sacrament earlier this month to sign up for the local St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
The parade organizers had rejected her application for years, claiming her L.G.B.T. community center did not abide by the teachings of the Catholic Church, but she thought this year might be different, she said last week.
And then she saw the misspelled, handwritten sign taped to the door of the church basement.
“Do to the threat of a protest by the gay pride people/politicians/and ministers of other faiths on the holy grounds of Blessed Sacrament Church the parade must move the parade sign-ups to 300 Manor Road,” it said, directing applicants to a nearby building used by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternity.
Ms. Bullock, who was accompanied that day by local religious leaders and members of the Gay Officers Action League, a law enforcement group also barred from marching, said the sign felt like a “slap in the face.”
When Ms. Bullock went to the second sign-up location that day, she was told the parade on March 1 did not allow gay groups.
| A sign taped to the door of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament by parade organizers. |
It was also a jarring throwback to bitter debates over L.G.B.T. inclusion that marred the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade for two decades before its organizers dropped a ban on gay groups in 2014.
Organizers of the Staten Island parade did not respond to messages seeking comment over the past week. But they have publicly argued in the past that L.G.B.T. groups are not appropriate for a parade dedicated to St. Patrick, who is the patron saint of both Ireland and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York.
Those arguments are similar to ones made for many years by organizers of the New York City parade, which is preceded each year by a special Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
L.G.B.T. groups now participate in St. Patrick’s Day parades both large and small across the New York region and the United States. But in Staten Island, the city’s least populous and most conservative borough, the parade has not changed.
“Staten Island is the last holdout in the city,” said Brian Downey, a detective with the New York Police Department who serves as president of the gay officer's group’s New York chapter. “We are in the parade in Queens, we are in the parade in Manhattan, we are in the parade in Brooklyn. Let us join the parade on Staten Island.”
The New York City parade, held on March 17 in Manhattan, is the oldest and largest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the world, with 150,000 marchers and two million spectators annually.
Smaller parades are held each year in communities across the city and region, and in recent years many have followed the Manhattan parade in allowing openly gay marchers.
On Staten Island, where the parade draws thousands of spectators and is a major event for local families, businesses and politicians, Ms. Bullock and others said they want to celebrate their Irish heritage free of discrimination.
Some also objected to their faith being cited as a reason to exclude people at a time when the church has taken a more compassionate approach to homosexuality under the leadership of Pope Francis, who said “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gay priests in 2013.
“Our religion shouldn’t be used as a weapon," said Julienne Verdi, a lawyer who brought her two children, both baptized Catholics, to support Ms. Bullock on Feb. 16.
Larry Cummings, the president of the Staten Island parade committee, did not respond to messages seeking comment over the past week.
Kathleen MacDonald, the treasurer of the parade committee, hung up when reached on the phone by a reporter. She did not respond to a subsequent message seeking comment.
But in recent years Mr. Cummings has explained the ban on L.G.B.T. groups to news organizations that serve Staten Island or the Irish diaspora.
In 2018, he told The Irish Voice, a newspaper in New York City, that the inclusion of gay groups in the Manhattan parade “has no bearing on Staten Island.”
“Our parade is for Irish heritage and culture,” he told the newspaper. “It is not a political or sexual identification parade.”
|This parade is a major event for businesses and politicians on Staten Island. Credit...Uli Seit for The New York Times|
He added: “Gays can march, but not under a banner.”
“Here’s the deal, it’s a nonsexual identification parade and that’s that. No, they are not marching,” Mr. Cummings said. “Don’t try to keep asking a million friggin’ questions, OK?”
That decision has cast a pall over the parade and drawn criticism from elected officials from both parties, many of whom have said they will not march, including Mayor Bill de Blasio; Borough President James Oddo, a Republican; Steven Matteo, the Republican minority leader of the New York City Council; Rep. Max Rose, a Democrat; and Councilwoman Debi Rose, who asked the Department of Education to either suspend school participation in the parade or to make it “strictly voluntary.”
It also drew a rebuke from the chairman of the Staten Island Republican Party, Brendan Lantry. In an opinion piece for The Advance, he said the ban on L.G.B.T. groups had turned the event into a “sexual identification parade” for straight people. Organizers should be moved by the spirit of the pope’s 2013 remarks, he argued.
“If the Church is open and welcoming to gays and lesbians, why not let an organization whose mission it is to support the march in the parade?” Mr. Lantry wrote.
The backlash has left parade organizers increasingly isolated as natural allies have sought to distance themselves, including the Catholic Church and the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish Catholic fraternal order that many on Staten Island view as the parade’s real organizer.
Neil Cosgrove, a national spokesman for the Ancient Order of Hibernians, said that while the parade organizers might belong to his organization, the parade committee itself is “an independent corporation.”
“Their involvement is as individuals and not as Hibernians in the same way that those on the committee may also belong to other fraternal, business or civic groups,” Mr. Cosgrove said. He added: “As such, it would be inappropriate for us to opine on the policies of a separate organization.”
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Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, said the church is not involved in planning or funding the parade. He declined to comment on the organizers’ belief that they are running a Catholic event.
He also said Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, who served as grand marshal for the Manhattan parade the year after it dropped its ban on gay groups, would not attend the Staten Island parade because of a scheduling conflict.
If any priests attend the parade, Mr. Zwilling said, “they will do so on their own, not as officials of the archdiocese.”
When Ms. Bullock and her supporters arrived at the second sign-up location on Feb. 16 they were greeted by four men who blocked the door to a dimly lit, windowless basement and told them they could only enter in pairs.
The Rev. Bill Baker, a local Episcopalian minister, accompanied her inside, where they said a large group of men watched them plead their case to Mr. Cummings, who has run the parade for many years. The Pride Center was first barred from marching in 2011, Ms. Bullock said.
“I said, ‘We’re here to apply to march in the parade, and he asked me one question: Are you from an organization that has to do with sexual identification?’” Ms. Bullock said. “I said, ‘Yes,’ and he goes, ‘No, you can’t march. This is not a sexual identification parade.’”
The minister said Mr. Cummings cited Catholicism and the example of St. Patrick as the reason they could not join the parade, but he did not elaborate on what he meant.
Ms. Bullock called the ban “a stain on Staten Island” and has asked supporters to refrain from marching in the parade but to attend as spectators, where they can shop at local businesses and wave rainbow flags from the sidewalk as bagpipers and fire trucks go past.
And she said she remains hopeful that next year things might turn out differently.
“The outpouring of support from all over the Island has been incredible,” Ms. Bullock said. “It’s frustrating because the amount of support we have far outweighed what is holding us back.”