Straight or gay, the struggle is how to say, 'I'm Irish'

March 17, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

BOSTON -- They hold court in bars.

John "Wacko" Hurley, 63, father of seven, transit worker, parade organizer, true-blue Southie, sits in a corner of the American Legion Post 368 in the heart of South Boston, nursing a beer and blowing giant rings of cigar smoke.

The phone rings. Lawyers want him. Television networks want him. A woman interrupts him in mid-sentence to hand him a thank-you note.

"Don't let 'em rain on our parade," she says.

Mr. Hurley is trying to explain the unfathomable.

They will have a St. Patrick's Day in South Boston today.

But, for the first time in 92 years, there will be no St. Patrick's parade.

"You write South Boston down on one side of the page, and on the other, you have to put family," he says. "This is about family values."

In another part of Boston, the South End, the meeting of the Irish American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston (GLIB) has just broken up.

Dave O'Connor, 25, born in Dublin, living in Boston for the past 4 1/2 years, sits on a stage at the Club Cafe and talks of what it means to be young and gay and Irish.

"Older people have to come to terms with what modern society brings," he says. "Change in any shape or form is difficult for them. I empathize with them. But at the same time they have to appreciate we're I'm coming from. I'm as much Irish as they are. And I have as much a right to march as they do."

But Sunday's near-century-old St. Patrick's Day Parade in South Boston has been called on account of court orders, pride and, some would say, outright prejudice.

Rather than allow GLIB to march under a court-imposed edict for a third consecutive year, the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council has pulled the plug on the show.

The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Justice David H. Souter declined yesterday to grant the Allied Veterans an order allowing them to ban gays and lesbians from marching.

"We drew a line in the sand," Mr. Hurley says.

"I think it's a shame," Mr. O'Connor says.

It is a tale of the Irish, of old ways and a modern society clashing on the most festive of days.

St. Patrick's Day is for religion, and family and Ireland.

And it is also a day of politics, for the old political hands and the rising stars to jockey for position in front of marching bands and American and Irish flags.

Nowhere is that more evident than in South Boston, a working-class enclave of row homes, smoky bars and family-run businesses. What the Lower East Side of New York was to Jewish immigrants, South Boston was to Irish immigrants, a first stop on a long road to success in America.

Even as new immigrants have come to replace the old, though, South Boston remains Irish at its core.

It is also a place resistant to change, especially when imposed by outsiders. This was a neighborhood that erupted in anger and violence during court-imposed school busing in the 1970s.

"We are not politically correct," said John Ciccone of the South Boston Information Center, a group formed 20 years ago to counter busing.

Mr. Ciccone said the neighborhood is safe, close-knit, filled with families.

"The perception around the country is that we are evil and narrow-minded," he said. "But that's not true. We don't care anymore. We have everything people would love to have. If the way we are upsets people around the country, then the hell with them."

They take their St. Patrick's Day Parade pretty seriously around here.

It's 14 bands, 15 floats, a 2-mile march end to end in front of a half-million or more spectators.

The parade began at the turn of the century, and the veterans' group took control in 1946.

"It's a family-oriented day," Mr. Hurley said.

"It's kind of like a Christmas season. You might go to six, eight, ten houses. Everyone is together. Then when the parade comes by, you all come out and watch. And then you go back inside and the party goes on."

Is it political?

Mr. Hurley said, "No."

"We're not running a parade for people to send messages," he said. "We refused the KKK. We refused the Irish Northern Aid group . . . right to life groups."

And so, three years ago, for the first time, the organizers said "no" to GLIB.

'Not our lifestyle'

"They are trying to send a message about their lifestyle," Mr. Hurley said. "And it is not our lifestyle. And it is unacceptable."

But the state courts had another message.

Attorneys for GLIB have won at every stage of the legal battle. And for the past two years, 25 GLIB marchers have taken their place in the parade.

It was not an entirely pretty sight.

The marchers endured taunts and obscene gestures. But they also heard some cheers, too.

"The support was empowering," Mr. O'Connor said.

"When we stood up to be counted, people realized we're just as much a part of the Irish community as themselves. We're their sisters and brothers, their daughters and sons."

To listen to Mr. Hurley and the GLIB activists speak of the same parade is to hear many of the same words and ideas.

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