After ending a long and controversial ban on gay groups this year, the nation's largest St. Patrick's Day parade has new leadership and plans to add another gay contingent to its ranks, organizers said Wednesday.
John Lahey was elected chairman on Tuesday, organizers said in a release. The choice marked the first change in the top post in more than two decades and furthers the parade's shift toward inclusiveness for gays marching openly.
Lahey and new Vice Chairman John Fitzsimons helped arrange for a gay delegation from parade sponsor NBCUniversal to join this year's lineup, after years of protests over a prohibition on groups with banners identifying them as representing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
"The board of directors is committed to building on the tradition of celebrating the contributions of all men and women of Irish descent," Lahey, who is the president of Quinnipiac University, said in a statement Wednesday.
The board also authorized the new leadership to choose a second gay delegation for next year's lineup, organizers said.
Lahey succeeds longtime chairman John Dunleavy, who remains on the board and didn't return a phone message Wednesday. He'd previously expressed reluctance to let gay groups march, telling the Irish Examiner in 2007 that "it would change the spirit of the parade."
The parade's leadership change comes in a pivotal season for gay rights in both the United States and Ireland. Same-sex couples won the right to marry nationwide through a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last week, and Irish voters approved a gay marriage referendum last month.
Meanwhile, LGBT people of Irish descent "have been waiting to take our rightful place in our own community celebration," said Brendan Fay, who's been pushing for gay inclusion in the 253-year-old Fifth Avenue parade. He'd lamented the decision to allow only the NBC group this year.
"A door we have been knocking on for a quarter-century opened a bit more today," he said Wednesday.
For years, organizers said that gay people were welcome to march but that signs or buttons celebrating their sexual identities would detract from the parade's focus on honoring Irish heritage.
Irish gay advocates sued in the early 1990s. Judges said the parade organizers had a First Amendment right to choose participants in their event.
In the ensuing years, gay activists protested along the parade route, and some politicians declined to participate. In 2014, first-year Mayor Bill de Blasio refused to march, and Guinness and Heineken withdrew their sponsorships. De Blasio still didn't join the ranks this year, saying the inclusion of just one gay delegation was too small a change.
In the meantime, an alternative St. Pat's for All parade in Queens became a popular stop for politicians and others seeking a more inclusive event.
It will continue next year, whatever the changes in the Fifth Avenue parade, said Fay, its founder.