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LGBT Groups Join In As NYC's St. Patrick's Day Parade Marches Up Fifth Avenue

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- The nation's largest St. Patrick's Day parade stepped off Thursday in New York City, and for the first time in decades, gay activists are not decrying it as an exercise in exclusion.

The first of roughly 200,000 marchers began striding up Fifth Avenue just after 11 a.m. in a procession of throbbing pipes and drums, smiling dignitaries and waving flags.

As always, it was a celebration of Irish heritage, but this year's parade also stands to close a long chapter of controversy.

A year after a limited easing of the parade's prohibition on gay groups, organizers now have opened the lineup more broadly to include activists who protested the ban for years.

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Gay activists who have been protesting the parade for 25 years said they were thrilled to be included in Thursday's celebration.

"This is a massive victory,'' said Irish-American Emmaia Gelman, 41, who was repeatedly arrested at parade protests and met her longtime partner at one.

For years, organizers said gay people could participate but couldn't carry signs or buttons celebrating their sexual identities. Organizers said they didn't want to divert focus from honoring Irish heritage.

Over the years, activists protested along the route, and some politicians boycotted. The pressure grew in 2014, when Mayor Bill de Blasio refused to march, and Guinness and Heineken withdrew their sponsorships.

The sponsorships resumed when parade organizers opened a door to gay groups last year, allowing a contingent from parade sponsor NBCUniversal. But critics saw the gesture as tokenism.

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Meanwhile, Boston's St. Patrick's Day parade ended a ban on gay groups that organizers had successfully defended at the Supreme Court. In the ensuing months, gay marriage became legal throughout the U.S. and Ireland.

Against that backdrop, New York St. Patrick's Day Parade organizers said they'd add a second gay group this year to the parade ranks: the Lavender & Green Alliance, which had long protested the gay-group ban.

"It's a day of history and hospitality," Brendan Fay, founder of the Lavender & Green Alliance, told 1010 WINS' John Montone. "We have been knocking on this door for 25 years and finally the door has opened."

Fay was joined by Edith Windsor, whose lawsuit led to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013.

Windsor sued the federal government after she was forced to pay $363,000 in estate taxes when her partner of 44 years, Thea Spyer, died in 2009 because DOMA didn't recognize their marriage even though the state of New York did. She would have paid nothing in inheritance taxes if she had been married to a man.

WCBS 880's Peter Haskell asked Windsor why people made an issue of LGBT groups marching under their own banners at the parade.

"It's hard to say why there is discrimination in our world, in our city, among our Irish people, as well as among everybody else in various degrees," Windsor said. "It was discrimination. You could march in the parade if you pretended you weren't gay."

De Blasio also ended his two-year boycott and joined the parade Thursday because of its new inclusiveness, CBS2 Political Reporter Marcia Kramer reported.

"I have such a feeling of peace today," de Blasio said. "I saw this whole crisis begin 25 years ago and I knew that one day we would all come together. What a beautiful thing that is today."

He characterized the policy change for the parade as a symbol of time moving forward.

"I think it sends a moral signal," de Blasio said. "This says that New York City is whole again; that the people of New York City are unified and that we're learning to overcome division."

The mayor joyously embraced Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who told CBS2's Kramer he was thrilled that decades of division were finally over.

"There's a great spirit; the weather helps – a wonderful sense of unity and friendship," Dolan said. "I'd say hallelujah, but I can't because it's lent."

The parade was especially meaningful for former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who marched proudly with her 89-year-old father in the parade after years of protest over the exclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender New Yorkers.

"It's hard to describe the thrill of walking down the street to the parade, as opposed to walking down the street to get arrested," Quinn said.

But others like the Catholic League have chosen not to march, saying if gay groups are allowed under their own banners, all advocacy groups should be, including pro-life organizations, CBS2's Andrea Grymes reported.

"It's contemptible,'' said Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, who stopped marching last year.

And the parade, held under tight security, was not without incident. One man, holding a gay pride flag near where the mayor was standing at the start of the parade, claimed he was roughed up.

"They pushed me. They grabbed me. One woman tried to pull my flag out of my arms. (I was) physically grabbed by more than one person," said Steven Menendez of Harlem. "There's still a lot of tension in the air."

But most along the parade route were glad the controversy was over.

"I think everybody should be here, you know, gays, straight -- it's a parade for everybody," said John O'Brien of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

"I'm OK with it, but I just don't want to take it away from the fact the parade is in celebration of Irishness and our history," said Loretta Fahy of Yorkville.

"I love it, and I'm glad everybody gets a chance to participate," said Michael Budano of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

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Meanwhile for many, the parade was not a day for politics, but for celebrating.

The youngest generation offered high-fives to get the crowd revved up, while pipes and drums sounded proudly, CBS2's Vanessa Murdock reported.

The Iona College pipe band was just one of more than 300 groups that joined the festivities. The Fighting 69th and their big Irish wolfhounds led the march, while NYPD and FDNY contingents got a rousing welcome from the sidelines, WCBS 880's Rich Lamb reported.

"You have people who are Irish, not even Irish, it's filled with bagpipes and kilts," said band member Patrick McCormack. "It's a really fun day and people are in a really good mood."

Local marching high school bands also took part, and proud parents of the band members were waiting in the wings.

"I'm so excited – I'm shaking like a leaf," said Dawn Cueman, whose daughter, Amanda, played flute. "I'm so excited for her."

The parents were super-proud of the Vernon Township High School marching band. Janice Wallace's son plays saxophone.

"He was nervous, very nervous. The first time, he was worrying about getting their step down, memorizing the music," Wallace said. "I was nervous for him, but I'm excited to be here."

The grand marshal of the parade was former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell of Maine, who negotiated the Northern Ireland peace accord.

"I believe there's no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended," Mitchell said.

Mitchell's paternal grandparents were born in Ireland. He got to know his roots while negotiating the peace deal, WCBS 880's Sean Adams reported.

"There's tremendous warmth and friendliness, particularly towards Americans," he said. "A great sense of a bond between the two countries. It's really a bridge of blood. There are over 30 million Americans with some form of Irish heritage."

Doreen O'Brien said she is proud to march with the Dublin Society of New York. She has done so for roughly 50 years, and said this year's parade was one of the best.

"It really brings you back to your own home; your heritage," O'Brien said.

Parade board chairman John Lahey has said organizers aim to invoke what he called "the lessons of sacrifice and heroism, of love and tolerance, embodied in the Irish spirit.''

This year also marked the first time the parade will be broadcast in Ireland and the United Kingdom through an Irish TV channel.

But for those out celebrating, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton stressed the importance of following parade guidelines and warned about the consequences of public drunkenness.

"If you think you're going to get away with that in Manhattan, well, you're going to spend overnight in one of our jails," he said.

Meanwhile, the entire lobby of the 7 World Trade Center building is also illuminated in green light in honor of St. Patrick's Day. The LED display is part of Tourism Ireland's seventh annual global greening initiative.

WTC St. Patrick's Day
(Credit: CBS2)

Other sites taking part in the event include the Colosseum in Rome, Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro and the Trafalgar Square in London.

(TM and © Copyright 2016 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2016 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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