LAWRENCE — For years, the prohibition of gay groups marching in the nation's largest and oldest St. Patrick's Day parade in New York served as the grounds for debate over free speech rights and public space.
A University of Kansas researcher of Irish literature and culture said the parade forum itself, on the holiday to celebrate Irish heritage, is an appropriate venue to answer larger questions about public discourse.
"The history of St. Patrick's Day as a parade is a very American institution," said Kathryn Conrad, associate professor of English. "St. Patrick's Day changes depending on where in the Irish diaspora it is celebrated. What does it mean to be Irish — especially if you're not in Ireland?"
Conrad is the author of the essay "Consuming Identity: ILGO, St. Patrick's Day, and the Transformation of Urban Public Space," published recently in the book "Consuming St. Patrick's Day," by Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Her essay examines the conflict about use of public space beginning in the 1990s as leaders of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, or ILGO, clashed with the Ancient Order of Hibernians, who organized the annual parade in New York City and had prevented the group from marching.
"The largest Irish diaspora is the United States, so it's definitely part of our political history," Conrad said. "It's perhaps fitting and right that the parade is a site where we're asking these questions."
The wider significance of the protests of the gay Irish group that was not allowed to march in the parade is that free speech and the interests of consumerism often clash in a public space, in this case the public streets of New York, she said.
During most of this controversy, New York City leadership, including Mayor Rudy Giuliani, advocated for and implemented cleanup and redevelopment aimed at drawing in more tourists and other wealthy consumers. Giuliani and developers wanted to reduce the perception of crime and threat in Times Square and other parts of the city in order to increase its attractiveness to those who might spend money there.
In legal documents about the parade dispute, city and police leaders argued they couldn't adequately protect protesters and gay rights marchers in the parade and that it could lead to traffic problems, but Conrad said the dispute was more about favoring consumerism over political speech.
"It was all about consumerism in public space, and it seems to me that, regardless of your opinion about the debate itself, the St. Patrick's Day parade had become more focused on commercial interests and less about politics," Conrad said. "Giuliani and others were very insistent that this was not a political parade, but that's not true because political groups have always marched in the parade. It's just that people didn't want it to be controversial, to disrupt their shopping and partying."
She said claiming that the parade was not political clashed with the history of the St. Patrick's Day parade because the first one in New York City in the late 1700s featured both Protestants and Catholics.
"It was not a Catholic religious parade. It was about Irish identity," Conrad said. "It's interesting in terms of the history of the parade, but it's also more interesting in terms of what we've come to think about the public sphere and public space."
She said the more recent dispute is also about Irish identity as the ILGO group was fighting to make the argument that they were also Irish.
As she attended the New York parade, Conrad said most people observing the parade seemed interested in learning more about the ILGO protests along the parade route. Although there was conflict, there was also conversation, and people came to understand more about a group of Irish people with which they weren't familiar.
"But the different arguments people used over the years to try to justify ILGO's exclusion weren't consistent at all," she said. "The inconsistency revealed conflicts in our understanding of what constitutes 'public.' For instance, can a public parade on public streets be 'owned' by a private group whose rules supersede a city's nondiscrimination policy?"
Despite recent success of many aspects of the gay rights movement, including last year's Supreme Court decision prohibiting bans on gay marriage, the dispute points to a larger issue beyond St. Patrick's Day as public officials and groups behind other social causes often clash on public property, Conrad said. Political speech is often the loser in favor of either consumerism or at least less controversy, she added.
"It seems to me that if we've had a physical public square, we've lost it," Conrad said. "Yes, this is a loss for democracy and for public debate and for mutual understanding. I'm worried this is a larger shift toward a consumer approach to politics rather than an engaged citizenship. Space matters in that question."
Photo: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey attended the New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade. Photo via the Department of Defense.