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One Route, Two Parades

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Stephanie Ebbert, Boston Globe / Mar 20, 2011

The Irish American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston marched with a police escort in the 1992 St. Patrick’s Day parade. (Boston Globe photo>

Today’s traditional St. Patrick’s Day parade will feature an Irish choir and a Coast Guard vessel, high school marching bands and military marchers, as well as tributes to “Ghostbusters,’’ “Star Wars,’’ and an old, local fruit syrup called ZaRex. A guy called Pogo Dave plans to hop the entire route on a pogo stick.

About an hour later and a mile behind, the St. Patrick’s Peace Parade will channel a very different vibe. Its marchers include Unitarian Universalist ministers, gay rights groups with rainbow flags, antiwar activists with signs such as “Bring the troops home and take care of them when they get here,’’ and music by the Leftist Marching Band.

“Don’t know nothing about that,’’ said Philip Wuschke Jr., the organizer of the traditional parade who took over the reins from longtime leader John “Wacko’’ Hurley last year. “We’ve got our parade and that’s all.’’

Sixteen years after the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the South Boston parade organizers can invite or exclude anyone they want, the debate over inclusion in the St. Patrick’s Day parade still simmers. Now, two parades — separate but equal — will march along the same route at different times. And nobody knows exactly how they will be greeted by the green-clad spectators lining the route.

“I don’t think the South Boston community is that riled up about it,’’ said Boston Police Superintendent William B. Evans, who said he does not anticipate issues related to the dual parades.

Still, police will be marching with both parades and have asked marchers in the second parade not to bring signs that egg people on and not to wear inappropriate clothing. They have also made it clear that they will not tolerate violence.

“No family of a Marine who gave his life in combat, who decide they want to protest the war, is going to be assaulted in my city,’’ Police Superintendent in Chief Daniel P. Linskey, who served in the Marine Corps, said on Friday. “We’ll have the appropriate resources to make sure that they have their right to say what they want to say and keep them safe as well.’’

The St. Patrick’s Day parade — both a treasured celebration of Boston Irish heritage and an annual excuse for college students to party in green hats — has spurred perhaps undue introspection over the past two decades in South Boston. Its trials date back to 1992, when gay rights groups who had been turned away by the organizers convinced Massachusetts courts that they were being discriminated against. Their court-ordered inclusion led to contentious parades in 1992 and 1993, when some gay marchers were met with snowballs, obscenities, and spittle.

The parade’s organizers, the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council, famously challenged the ruling all the way to the Supreme Court and won a unanimous decision that the parade was a form of protected free speech. No one could insist on being let in.

That ruling was tested again in 2003 by Veterans for Peace. After being denied permission to march in the parade that year, they were waved onto the end of the route by Boston Police. Again, organizers sued, arguing that police had violated the Supreme Court decision, and again, the courts upheld their right to shape the list of marchers. But a US magistrate judge found that other groups could march without the organizers’ permission if they got their own permit and stayed a mile behind the traditional parade.

Today’s dueling parades are the first test of that new system, and Veterans for Peace invited gay activists to join.

“They were discriminated against 16 years ago, and as soon as we were discriminated against, I said, ‘Let’s invite the gay and bisexual community to join our parade. Let’s not be discriminatory,’’ said Veterans for Peace coordinator Pat Scanlon.

March 17’s double celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day and Evacuation Day — the day the British ended their occupation of Boston in 1776 — are as significant as ever for South Boston-born Irish like City Council member Bill Linehan.

“Our responsibility as elected officials is to make sure the significance of the holiday resonates,’’ he said. “We get to celebrate who we are as Bostonians and as Irish-Americans.’’

While the parade is practically mandatory for South Boston’s politicians, some outside the politically wired neighborhood have taken a political stance over the parade’s policies. Mayor Thomas M. Menino makes a point of not marching because of the exclusion of gay rights groups. This year, Councilor at Large Felix Arroyo pointedly scheduled a fund-raiser with gay activists at the time of the parade.

“I’m a little surprised it’s still an issue,’’ said Arroyo, noting that Massachusetts has recognized gay marriage for years. “It seems to be out of touch with the Boston that I know and frankly, out of touch with the South Boston that I know.’’

But inside Figaro Barber Shop on West Broadway, some voiced deep misgivings about the reception that gay rights and antiwar marchers would get in South Boston today.

“You have people who have lost kids here — kids, wives, husbands — I don’t think they want to hear that stuff,’’ said a Dominican barber who would identify himself only as “Walter the Barber.’’

And as for the gay groups? “This is not a gay community,’’ he said. “They should stay in the South End.’’

“I think that’s going to be trouble,’’ added “Luis The Barber,’’ a Dominican who was wearing a leprechaun hat. “Everybody’s drunk, so there’s definitely going to be conflict.’’

Inside Shenanigan’s, an Irish pub, the people who most eagerly embraced the alternative parade had an Irish brogue.

“In Ireland, there’s a gay section of the parade. If you’re Irish, you’re Irish,’’ said Peter MacGiolloarua who moved from Belfast.

“I think it’s great because everyone has a right to march,’’ said Laura Smith, an Irish-born doctor who moved to the United States seven years ago and now lives in South Boston. “It’s a day for expressing who you are and it shouldn’t be exclusive.’’

Veterans for Peace is an antiwar, proveterans group that manages a house for veterans in recovery and helps with projects such as distributing food to homeless veterans.

The peace activists do not intend to be provocative, and even plan to have “peacekeepers’’ on the sidelines to quell any conflicts, said Ann Coleman, a cochairwoman of Join the Impact Massachusetts, one of the participating gay rights groups.

“In the United States and in Boston in particular, the first St. Patrick’s Day parades were about putting forth a positive message for the discrimination Irish immigrants were facing — a sense of pride to say, ‘Don’t demonize us, mischaracterize us, discriminate against us,’ ’’ she said. “We feel like in 2011, the messages we’re bringing of equality and peace tie into that tradition. In a way, we can write new history.’’

Globe correspondent Cara Bayles contributed to this report. Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at