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I am a fifth generation Irish American Catholic and a lesbian. I was born to a half-Irish father (Dinnen) and a half-Irish mother (Cummings), but our family identity was one-hundred percent Irish.
As a child I delighted in the old stories of Leprechauns, Faerie Circles, magic rainbows, and, of course, St. Patrick, for whom I was named. I also grew up immersed in the tragic tales of Irish Catholics confronting centuries of political and religious persecution, discrimination, derision, despair, and even death: they died in unsuccessful rebellions, “The Great Hunger,” famines, and even in the “Coffin Ships” on which 30 percent perished. I knew how common “NINA” (No Irish Need Apply) signs had once been, and I knew how important it was to fight for “Faith and Freedom,” to be politically active, and to stand in solidarity with progressive movements, like the Unions and Civil Rights, and with all people of good will who fight for justice and equality.
Acting on those values got me into real trouble in 1955 Anniston, Alabama, when I was removed from the stage and expelled from the public high school for giving a speech promoting “full and rapid integration” and the end of all “Jim Crow” practices.
So when I came out at 17 in my freshman year at the University of Michigan, where even the unsupported suspicion of homosexual activity was sufficient grounds for immediate expulsion, I was able to reject the homophobia so prevalent around me because of my cultural values and early experiences — and because I saw such clear parallels between gay and Irish Catholic experiences. Both groups faced overwhelming ignorance, bigotry, and legal discrimination, simply for being true to themselves and not denying their core identities.
Over the years, with great sadness and growing anger, I watched as the LGBTQ community was repeatedly prohibited from participating in St. Patrick’s Day Parades so dear to my heart. In 2015 I was ecstatic when Ireland herself voted for Marriage Equality, and it appeared that we had also won the “Great Parade Battles.” That year, the DC Center for the LBGT Community and the Catholic organization Dignity marched together in D.C.’s St. Paddy’s Day Parade and gay contingents joined the Parades in New York City and Boston. We were welcomed with smiles and applause by most spectators, just as my spouse and I were saluted by fellow passengers on a whale watch boat as we were married in Provincetown in 2003.
But this year, following a very polarizing election, our previous success was reversed when Boston initially disallowed the Gay “OutVets” their Parade permit because their logo included the LGBTQ rainbow. I was stunned by the absolute absurdity and tragic irony that descendants of Irish people, so often persecuted for the “Wearin’ O’ the Green,” would actually deny the LGBTQ community their “Wearin’ O’ the Rainbow.” But apparently Ireland’s “better angels” and the voices of the American people intervened, for the gay veterans were welcomed back to the Parade, rainbows and all.
While the Parade struggles now seem settled, other, more serious, prejudice-based issues have become much more dire: Muslims are being attacked; Jewish cemeteries, vandalized; and transgender rights are at great risk across the country. Once again, “the winds that blow across the seas from Ireland” are telling us we must join together and resist, speak out, stand up, and fight back against injustice and intolerance, whenever and wherever they appear.
So, when I tear up as the pipers play the first sad bars of “Danny Boy,” I am remembering all the heroes of the Irish, LGBTQ, and other Freedom Movements. I am remembering all those we have loved and lost, and all those who still keep faith with the ancient immigrant dream that “the best is yet to be.”
In the words of an old Irish toast, “Up the Rebels!”
Dr. Pat Hawkins, a clinical psychologist, is the former Associate Executive Director of The Whitman-Walker Clinic and the current E.D. of the DC Community AIDS Network (DC CAN). She lives in Southern Maryland and Keyser, West Virginia, with her spouse Dr. Robin Halprin-Hawkins. They celebrated the 35th anniversary of their first date at the 2017 St. Paddy’s Day Parade in D.C. last Sunday.
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