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Irish gays busy dodging croziers and shillelaghs.

I waited for the foam to settle on New York's St. Patrick's Day Parade, then called Brendan Fay, an immigrant Irish Catholic who is gay. He is one of the leaders of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization ILGO, which put the New York church to a test of its faith.

The church flunked. Beneath its grand smiles, green ribbons, watered silk and Blessed Mother banners, faith proved thinner than boarding-house soup, made mostly of fear, prejudice and hypocrisy.

"It's not such a human way to be living," Fay said. "I'm fresh out of jail and I'm late returning your call because I've just come from giving a talk at a conference on gays and lesbians in Irish history.

"Ireland and Irishness aren't presented very well. For years, I thought the only gay Irishman was Oscar Wilde. But then I began to find all kinds of others. There was John Atherton, for example, one of the first bishops in Ireland. He was appointed by Henry VIII, who made church law into civil law and then had Atherton executed by the very laws against homosexuality the bishop had set up. And, in 1822, there was Percy Jocelyn, the lord bishop of Clogher, who was the head of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. He was sent off to jail himself for being a homosexual. Well, of course, they were both Protestants. ..."

Fay carried on like that until 1:30 a.m. He told me of the beautiful poetry that came from monasteries where monks often went off in pairs and lived together and of both the words and art in the early Irish texts that showed clearly that the Irish were well-aware of sex in all its forms.

Then there was Roger Casement, an Irish nationalist and hero of the fight for freedom, who went to jail for his homosexuality. Priests pleaded with him to just say he was crazy and they could get him out. But Casement answered that he could not deny "a love that God had made, not I."

Fay recalled the young Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins who spent time in Dublin. He had a head filled with examples. And so he went on, Brendan Fay, a lover of Irish history and literature, a member of the Gaelic League, a dancer at Irish ceilidhes, a former Irish Christian Brother, seminarian and religion teacher in New York Catholic schools, a man who would much rather talk about a rich Irish culture than about a parade that, as often as not, gives a shanty Irish impression of a nation where words are sacred.

But I needed to talk about the parade, in which Fay had proudly marched for years after he came to this country in 1984, until he and more than 200 other Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans announced they were homosexuals and lesbians and wanted to celebrate both that and their Irishness by having their own contingent in the parade.

Then the New York police horses reared, the bishops used their crosiers like shillelaghs, and the bagpipes nearly split their kidney-shaped sides.

Over 35 years ago, I taught in an allboys Catholic high school in Manhattan. The school marched in the parade every year, celebrating more faith than Irishness. The brothers and lay teachers had put the fear of God into the boys, not to disgrace the school with even a turned head. I never even thought about how many of the teachers or boys might be gay.

At the reviewing stand, the mayor, other politicians and the top men of the Ancient Order of Hibernians elbowed each other for a chance to show their green sashes at the front of the platform.

It never crossed my mind that under those top hats and ample bellies, there might be some gay Irish Catholics.

At St. Patrick's Cathedral, the boys turned their heads left to acknowledge the cardinal and his clerical entourage, all of them grinning and blessing under those birettas with the colored balls that signified their ranks. It never dawned on me to think how many of God's chosen were gay. This year, I thought about it a lot.

The church made me do it.

Back home, Fay had been involved in a medley of causes. He visited Taize and the Vatican, "where I became disenchanted." His search for peace of mind took him to an Irish Cistercian monastry where he went on his knees to a saintly priest who listened uncritically to his revelation that he was a homosexual.

"Get off your knees, lad," the priest said. "Sure, I'm the same as you are. ... Stay away from rigid people."

Fay tried New York. "I wanted to get away from my own hypocrisy," he said. "I used to go to the pubs and bathhouses in Dublin where I met other Irish gays, including priests, but we were all afraid to come out. We simply couldn't be Irish and gay. We couldn't break the hermetic seal."

Being Irish, Catholic and gay seemed to be a contradiction in terms, like God who can do all things making a rock he couldn't lift. Fay became active in the loosely organized ILGO. Founded in 1988, it had few members and few purposes.

In 1991, a picture of Fay appeared in the paper. He was dancing with Mayor David Dinkins, who marched with ILGO. Fay was called to the principal's office and fired. The students signed a petition, but the wall of fear held. He now works in a lamp shop.

ILGO had a more important agenda than marching in the St. Patrick's Day Parade. In 1991, however, they filed an application with the Ancient Order of Hibernians with no other thought than to enter a small contingent as part of their own efforts to break the seal that bound them. Initially, there was no objection, but when it came to the attention of church authorities, ILGO was soon "on a waiting list to nowhere."

They marched anyway. "Die, fags!" the crowd shouted. Fay remembers the experience as one of the most important spiritual moments in his life. "I only wanted it to be a celebration of our Irishness," he said, "but it broke the seal on our silence."

The next year, the Hibernians used their clout to ban the contingent again. Indeed, the AOH almost canceled the parade. Things got worse in 1993. The church joined in with editorials and speeches that likened the Hibernians to martyrs for the faith. Now, the AOH announced, it was a "Catholic parade." A spokesman for the Hibernians called ILGO "Irish sodomites."

(There is hardly a scripture scholar who still has his own teeth that views Sodom's offense as a sexual one. The scholars cite adultery, lying, unrepentance, pride, gluttony, indifference to the poor, inhospitality, etc. Jesus mentions Sodom, but no specific sin. But gaybashers seem to like the word.)

Cardinal O'Connor stated that ILGO was trying to bring down the Catholic church. ILGO was linked to ACT-UP, a militant gay group with whom it has no connection. Fay's message machine informed him he was a British spy sent to New York to discredit the Irish race. It was enough to physic a rat.

A series of clout-laden injunctions kept ILGO from the 1993 parade. It formed a small group anyway and attempted to march. Singing "We Shall Overcome," marchers walked into a sea of police, who arrested 238 of them.

"We got only one block," Fay said. "I was with my friend Tarlach MacNiallis, the first Irish gay I met in New York. I was holding my rosary. We were charged with criminal contempt, parading without a permit, and disobeying an injunction. But there were straights and even a priest arrested with us."

The experience has decimated ILGO. Membership has declined to just a few dozen. Most left the church in disgust before the spit of the rabid New York crowd had dried on their coats. Cardinal O'Connor bragged that all their efforts "were not worth one comma in the Apostles' Creed."

The crowds watching the parade have dwindled considerably. There's a good chance that the annual event has ended. Lawyers, including William Kunstler, are poised to challenge the church-state question in court. Few people have the stomach to march for hypocrisy.

In Dublin, Galway and Cork, gay Irish units marched without incident while their heritage of tolerance was trampled by their descendants. "The Celtic heritage is one of bonding and friendship," Fay said.
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Author:Unsworth, Tim
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Apr 23, 1993
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