Gay vets lose in July 4 parade conflict

June 24, 1994|By Pat Gilbert | Pat Gilbert,Sun Staff Writer

After two years of being shut out of the Catonsville Fourth of July Parade, a gay veterans groups sought to use old-fashioned bargaining tactics to gain entry into this year's event.

And it almost worked.

Gay and Lesbian Veterans of Maryland Inc. applied for a parade permit a month before Catonsville Celebrations Committee, the group that has run the parade for 48 years.

The veterans group thought that, if it applied first to march in the noon to 5 p.m. time the traditional parade has used, it would get approval over the parade committee.

"We were hoping to get the permit and then use it as a bargaining chip with the parade committee by agreeing to relinquish the time in return for participating in the parade," said Alan Stephens, spokesman for the veterans group.

With conflicting applications, the county Department of Permits and Licenses ultimately granted the parade committee a permit for afternoon and gave the veterans group a permit to march in a separate parade the morning of July 4. A letter was sent to the veterans group.

However, no one checked the organization's post office box for a month, Mr. Stephens said, and by the time they got the letter, the 30-day limit to appeal a decision to the Board of Appeals had passed.

"We are not going to hold a separate parade because we feel that we are part of the community just like any other organization and should be included in the main parade," said Mr. Stephens said. "Bottom line, if we weren't gays or lesbians, we wouldn't be having this problem."

The parade committee said the gay veterans can march, but without the organization's banner.

The veterans group said its banner identifies the organization in theway one would for a high school band or local women's club. But the parade committee maintains the banner makes a political statement.

"Throughout our history -- and it's in our bylaws -- we have kept political statements of any kind out of this parade whether it's groups advocating positions on abortion or political candidates advocating their election to office," said George Abendschoen, committee director.

"All of the other organizations participating in the parade are allowed to use their banners," Mr. Stephens said. "We shouldn't be subjected to different rules."

Mr. Abendschoen said the committee has agreed to allow the veterans to march under the banner of a gay Veteran of Foreign Wars post in California, with which the local group is affiliated, or under the banner of the local VFW post.

In any event, the veterans have yet to apply for participation in the parade, Mr. Abendschoen said.

In 1992 and 1993, the veterans were kept out of the parade. Two weeks after last year's event, the group filed its parade permit application for July 4, 1994. On Aug. 11, the celebrations committee filed.

Eugene A. Freeman, chief of licenses and regulations services, said neither group would give up the afternoon time.

"In making my decision, I decided to go with the long history and tradition of the parade, which has been held by the parade committee on Fourth of July afternoon," said Mr. Freeman. "I thought by granting the veterans group a permit to hold a parade in the morning, I had found a positive solution and wouldn't have to say no to either group."

He said he wrote the veterans a letter Nov. 22 explaining his decision and after getting no response thought his solution was acceptable.

Mr. Stephens said he suspects that, since Mr. Abendschoen is an aide to County Executive Roger B. Hayden, political influence might have been involved in the decision. Mr. Freeman and Mr. Abendschoen emphatically denied that.

Diane Auer Jones, who lives in Catonsville and has a business there, said it was a shame both sides couldn't work out a compromise.

"This had disrupted the community and it's ironic that with this year's theme being unity, that we are still dealing with exclusion and old stereotypes." said Ms. Jones.

Diane Foster, former vice president of the Greater Catonsville Chamber of Commerce, said the civic group tried this spring to mediate.

"We were hoping that it could be resolved so that there wouldn't be this contention in future parades," said Ms. Foster.

Barbara Greene, a chamber board member, said that the veterans' banner does make a statement. "Advertising a sexual preference doesn't fit in with the family and patriotic tradition of the parade," she said.

Ms. Jones agreed with the parade committee's desire to keep out special interest groups that promote violence or hate such as the Ku Klux Klan or skinheads.

"The gay veterans fought and, in some cases, died for our country, and they are not promoting hate," she said. "If anything, they're promoting understanding and tolerance."

She said her business still will sponsor a float and, except on this issue, praised the parade organizers.

Parade groups disagreeing with the committee's stance will be asked to wear small rainbow flags to show support for the veterans.

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