Small contingent of gay marchers in parade kept presence low-key, got warm welcome

The float with the rainbow cannon fire finally took the turn onto Broadway and lumbered slowly as it joined the St. Patrick’s Day parade in South Boston. The contingent included roughly 30 marchers, most of whom were gay men.

A crowd lined both sides of the parade route, cramming the sidewalk. As the float inched slowly up Broadway, people looked up. They began to cheer loudly.

The marchers pulled out their secret weapon — they had brought nearly 500 pounds of plastic bead necklaces. People stood three deep at metal police barricades and held their hands above their heads, jumping up and down as they screamed for beads. The marchers obliged and tossed green and rainbow-colored necklaces into the crowd.

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“This is a blast. You can feel the energy,” said Randy Foster, who lives a few block off the parade route and spearheaded the float. “I don’t know if they know I’m gay. And who cares?”

The men were not marching as a gay advocacy group. They marched as a community group that had coalesced around building a park. Many of the people walking with the float just happened to be gay.

The group wore scally caps and rainbow-colored bead necklaces. Some wore ties; others had donned jeans and sweaters. As they marched up Broadway, cheers continued. A building boom in the neighborhood has forged strong bonds between long-time South Boston residents and newcomers, some of whom are gay. In their seven years in the neighborhood, Foster and his husband, Steve Martin, the two men spearheading the neighborhood float, had become active in the St. Vincent’s Lower End Neighborhood Association.

“These are my neighbors and friends,” said Ellie Kasper, a long-time South Boston resident who marched with the group. “They work very hard in the neighborhood. I love them. I think this is reality. They did their work, and they are representing our neighborhood.”

Like her fellow marchers, Kasper had an arm full of green necklaces and smiled as she tossed the green beads into the crowd.

“I think the moral of the story is, you have beads and they will like you,” Kasper said.

Parade organizers and the statewide gay rights group MassEquality were locked in a standoff in recent weeks. At issue was a two-decade prohibition on gay organizations marching openly. Parade organizers argued that they had never banned gay marchers but barred groups that wanted to use the parade to make a political statement.

The float with the rainbow cannon fire was pulled by a pickup truck with a banner that read, “Celebrate the diversity of Boston.” But there was nothing to indicate that the group consisted largely of gay marchers.

In its parade application, the contingent described its entry as a “diversity float” that would welcome people of all races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. They had approval from parade organizers to wear scarves with a variety of colors and symbols, including an equal sign for gay rights.

But none of the marchers wore scarves.

“You’ve got 25 gay guys marching,” Foster said. “Any of them could have chosen to wear a scarf to make a statement. None of them did.”

Standing at the edge of the parade on Broadway, Britta Hiester waved a rainbow flag and cheered loudly as the float passed. Hiester lives and a block away and wanted to show support for the float and the message of diversity.

“I know that many of my neighbors are being forced to speak in a coded way about their identity,” Hiester said, flapping the rainbow flag in the crisp air. “I brought this because I could.”

Along the route, the cheers continued as the men tossed beads into the crowd. The group did not encounter any hostility.

“It’s better than I expected,” Martin said. “It’s been a nice surprise.”

A second contingent in the parade, The South Boston Association of Non-Profits, also included members of the gay community.

They carried colorful banners that bore slogans such as “We stand for inclusion” and “We stand for unity.”

“People were very happy to see us,” said Michael Dowling, president of the association, which includes 70 different nonprofits in South Boston.

“We got a lot of thanks. We got a lot of applause. Nothing negative at all. We’re already talking about our float for next year.”