Pat Scanlon was born on Saint Patrick’s Day. And on his birthday, he’ll be throwing a parade.
But no, it’s not some grandiose act of self-indulgence. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Scanlon heads the Greater Boston chapter of Veterans for Peace, and is coordinating its third annual Saint Patrick’s Peace Parade in South Boston: an “alternative parade” that is resolute in its anti-war message and, unlike the larger and long-running parade organized by the Allied War Veterans Council, is uncompromisingly inclusive of the LGBT community. When it hits the streets on March 17, 2013, it will be on the twentieth anniversary of the larger parade’s discriminatory decision to ban LGBT marchers.
“This is more than a parade,” says Scanlon. “This is social justice action on the streets of South Boston. These twenty years of bigotry and discrimination have gone on long enough.”
Scanlon is referring, of course, to the 1993 denial of the Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston (GLIB) to march in South Boston’s famous Saint Patrick’s Day parade. The Supreme Court has since upheld the right of the Allied War Veterans Council, which was anointed the parade’s organizing body by the City of Boston in 1947, to prevent LGBT groups from participating.
Nearly twenty years later, Scanlon found himself in a similar situation. Scanlon applied to have Veterans for Peace march in the 2011 parade, but was denied. He says he was told that the Council did not want the word “peace” associated with the word “veterans.” “They thought we were ‘too political,’” scoffs Scanlon. That’s awfully rich, he says, since the parade has become dominated by military formations and glad-handing politicians – a vision worlds apart from the original meaning of the holiday.
Scanlon was incensed by the Council’s decision. “I come from a big Irish-Catholic family, was raised in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood and spent 17 years in an Irish-Catholic school,” says Scanlon. “I’m a decorated Vietnam veteran, and when I came back I went to nursing school and worked in the Bedford VA Medical Center. I’m a member of Veterans of Foreign War and Veterans For Peace. And you’re telling me with all that experience and credentials, I can’t walk in your parade?”
So Scanlon started his own, and the first place he reached out was the gay community. “You weren’t allowed to walk in their parade. How would you like to walk in ours?” That was the offer Scanlon made as he recruited LGBT groups, like Join the Impact, to join his parade. Now going into its third year, the Peace Parade has is already exploding in participation: from 500 marchers in 2011 to 2,000 in 2012, with marching bands, bagpipe players, and duck boats in tow.
“One day, I’d like for our parade to be bigger than theirs,” says Janice Josephine Carney, a member of Veterans for Peace and president of the New England GLBT Veterans. As a transgender woman and lesbian, Carney has a unique perspective on how deeply ingrained prejudices can trump even the reverence given to America’s veterans. “It’s happened to me a number of times that I’ll be talking to someone, and they’ll be shaking me hand and treating me so nice as a disabled veteran,” explains Carney. “Then they’ll pick up something in my voice, realize I’m transgender – and turn on me. Suddenly the respect I was getting is just gone. It’s hurtful.”
So to be able to march proudly and peacefully is deeply meaningful, says Carney. And she says that so far the LGBT members in the Peace Parade have done so without incident – even if the Allied War Veterans Council has still tried to undermine them. Thanks to a lawsuit by the larger parade’s organizers, the Peace Parade is forced to walk one mile behind the main march, once the barriers had been lifted and the street sweepers had done their job. The idea, says Carney, was to minimize the Peace Parade – and its possible audience. “By the time we got there, everyone thought the parade was over,” she says. Not this year. Thanks to pro bono lawyers, the barriers will remain down and the Peace Parade will precede the street sweepers – likely exposing their message to a much larger audience.
It’s amazing to think how far things have come, says Cliff Arnesen, a bisexual Vietnam-era veteran and a longtime activist for LGBT rights in the military. Arnesen marched with GLIB in the Saint Patrick’s Day parade in 1992, the sole year that, before the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Allied War Veterans Council, GLIB was allowed to do so by a state court order. Arnesen remembers the nasty names, and the spitting. He says he lost his job when coworkers saw his photo from the parade was printed in a daily newspaper. He remembers the SWAT teams, the officers stationed on rooftops to protect gay marchers from the threat of a violent riot, and the police vans that waited at the end of the parade route to scoop up the group and rush them away from thugs to a safe haven: Arlington Street Church.
But there is one moment he remembers most of all.
“I was holding an American flag in my hand,” recalls Arnesen. He we was approached by another veteran, one from outside GLIB, who told him he was violating the court’s order to not carry banners. “I said, ‘This isn’t a banner. It’s the American flag,’” says Arnesen. But the other vet wouldn’t budge. “He said, ‘Unless you surrender that flag, you can’t march.’”
So Arnesen did. Forced to choose between keeping the flag or losing the group’s right to march, he handed over the most powerful symbol of the country he had served. “I had tears in my eyes,” says Arnesen. “I’m a veteran. I love my country. So I gave him the flag, the most difficult I thing I could have to do.”
Though Arnesen’s health won’t allow him to walk in this year’s Peace Parade, it heartens him to know how far things have come. “I’ve lived through the assassination of Harvey Milk and the Stonewall Riots,” says Arnesen. “A lot of people don’t live to see the fruits of their labor. I never thought I would see a day of same-sex unions, or see what has happened in the military.”
And when it comes to marching on Saint Patrick’s Day, Scanlon says he’ll make sure the LGBT community is never again left behind. In fact, he says he balked at intimations that the Peace Parade might score a spot in the main parade – if they came alone.
“I thought, how hypocritical it would be of us to leave our gay brothers and sisters behind,” says Scanlon, whose son is gay. “We will never leave them behind. We’re in this together now.”