Some cultural markers are immutable – think of the Haj pilgrimage, the Yah Boo nature of a democratic election, or the ranks of bare-chested men on the streets of Britain, come the first day of Spring.
This year’s New York parade, the largest in the world, became mired in controversy when Gay Rights groups demanded to participate in a way that not only publicly exhibited their Irish-ness, but also their gay-ness. And the organisers refused. They had no issue with gay people joining in, but not in a way that allowed a Gay agenda to ride pillion alongside a celebration of Irishness. Push followed shove and before you could click your heels three times, major sponsors - including the iconic Guinness - had pulled out.
So was the demand reasonable? Arguably, campaigners were simply asking that people be allowed to celebrate who they are, in totality – i.e. Irish and gay. Indeed, many (most?) people have multiple facets to their identity – one could be part Irish and part Puerto Rican, or Irish and wheelchair-bound. These composite identities are potentially political, and thus for the ‘wearer’, indivisible. Indeed, a composite or hyphenated identity is not only increasingly common, but in some quarters, positively endorsed – think African-American, British Muslim, or the LGBT division of the English Defence League.
So when is the composite model appropriate? Why does it work in the highlighted cases? For those nations built upon waves of immigration, pragmatism necessitates inclusion – in other words, an exclusive identity becomes less politically (and commercially) viable, with each wave of new arrivals. Even for groups like the EDL, once your focal point is clear, it is to the group’s advantage to cast the net wide. (The greater success enjoyed by the EDL as compared to its more exclusive, racially-focussed progenitors – the BNP, Combat 18 et al – illustrates this point).
So can the same model be applied to St Patrick’s Day? Arguably, yes – but arguably, no. St Patrick’s Day is just that – one day. One day, to celebrate one thing – Irishness. Whether one is Catholic, Protestant or atheist, living in the Motherland or a 5th generation émigré with some Italian and Cuban thrown in the mix, straight or gay – on St Patrick’s Day, the differences don’t matter – it’s the common denominator that counts. The occasion is - at least in today’s New York context - one for the Irish diaspora to hold hands and revel in what they share. And no secondary identity gets to hop along for the ride.
Convinced..? No? It’s ok – let’s not argue the toss… What is really interesting, though, is that the public space, the sphere of debate in which the organisers were able to make their case, collapsed down to almost nothing. Just the mere whiff of being perceived as anti-gay, led to politicians, personalities and sponsors, running for the hills. What we witnessed was the ‘protection’ around a minority – gay people - resembling the privileged standing that other minorities have enjoyed in recent American history – notably African Americans and Jews.
So far, so…conformist. The whole drama fits the exact pattern that other minorities have experienced, as they journey away from persecution – even to the extent of reaching near ‘untouchability’, wherein, from the perspective of detractors, any point gets deflected by a charge of racism/sexism/anti-Semitism/Islamophobia/homophobia…
In his outstanding work of difference, Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon – himself a gay man – documents his personal story. On the subject of the long road journeyed from being part of a loathed minority, he writes –
“When I was born in 1963, homosexual activity was a crime; during my childhood, it was a symptom of illness. When I was two, Time magazine wrote, ‘Even in purely non-religious terms, homosexuality represents a misuse of the sexual faculty. It is a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life. As such it deserves fairness, compassion, understanding and, when possible, treatment. But it deserves no encouragement, no glamorization, no rationalization, no fake status as minority martyrdom, no sophistry about simple differences in taste – and, above all, no pretence that it is anything but a pernicious sickness.’ "
And fifty years later, Guinness withdrew their support from what should have been a flagship event, over fear of being tarnished ‘anti-gay’, or at the very least, not ‘gay-friendly’.
What this demonstrates is that ‘minority rights’ aren't really about minorities; rather, it’s all about the majority – and their preferences/tastes at any given point. And without a fixed axis, tastes change; hated minorities can morph into unimpeachable martyrs. And today’s ‘most-favoured’ victim could, tomorrow, find themselves usurped by the new kid in town. So who will next find succour and understanding? Transgender, transsexual and intersex people? Criminals, paedophiles, eco warriors? Zionists were once officially condemned by the British Government as terrorists - could Islamists one day find a sympathetic shoulder to cry on? Sound crazy? Maybe… But in the immortal words of Donald Rumsfeld, we don’t know what we don’t know. The only constant, is change. Good luck, everyone.