The nation's largest St. Patrick's Day parade, which in recent years was mired in controversy over its ban on openly gay marchers, bowed to corporate and public pressure Wednesday by including a diversity group from NBCUniversal in next year's event.
It was a major reversal for the 252-year-old parade, an event involving more than 300 marching teams and hundreds of thousands of people who come from around the world to watch the promenade up Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
In a statement, parade spokesman Bill O'Reilly said the decision to have OUT@NBCUniversal march under its LGBT banner was aimed at ending the political debate that has raged over the exclusion of openly gay groups and individuals.
"This grand cultural gem has become a target for politicization that it neither seeks nor wants because some groups could join the march but not march with their own banner," O'Reilly said. "To address that and move forward, parade organizers welcome the LGBT group, 'OUT@NBCUniversal' to march in the 2015 NYC St. Patrick's Day Parade under its own banner."
OUT@NBCUniversal describes itself on its website as "a volunteer organization with a goal to attract, develop and retain Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Straight Ally employees" at NBCUniversal.
Craig Robinson, executive vice president and chief diversity officer for NBCUniversal, said OUT@NBCUniversal would be "proud" to take part in the March 17 parade.
"We welcome the Parade Committee's decision to accept OUT@NBCUniversal's application to march and enthusiastically embrace the gesture of inclusion," Robinson said. "Our employees, families and friends look forward to joining in this time-honored celebration of Irish culture and heritage."
The local NBC affiliate WNBC has broadcast the parade since the late 1990s under an agreement due to expire after 2015.
The Irish Voice newspaper reported that the network was "prepared to drop its coverage unless a compromise that resulted in the inclusion of a gay group was brokered." An NBCUniversal spokesperson denied that but said efforts had been underway for some time to open the event to gay marching groups.
Among those pushing for change was Frank Comerford, an NBCUniversal executive who was the parade's grand marshal in 2012 and who sits on the parade committee's board of trustees.
The committee for years resisted change, even as states -- including New York -- began legalizing same-sex marriage and as politicians and corporations began expressing their disapproval of the parade's policy.
The controversy peaked at this year's parade when Mayor Bill De Blasio refused to take part in it and Guinness USA dropped its sponsorship.
Irish Queers, a group that has fought since the early 1990s to change the parade policy, said the inclusion of the OUT@NBCUniversal group was not nearly enough to end what it called the "veneer of hate" permeating the event. While parade organizers say additional gay groups can apply to march in the future, Irish Queers said they should be permitted in the parade immediately.
"The fight continues," the group said in a statement. "We welcome this small victory, but our call remains the same -- the parade must be open to Irish LGBT groups, not in 'subsequent years' but now," it said.
But Mary Higgins Clark, the 2011 parade's grand marshal, said the change was a "wonderful gesture of good will."
"As an Irish American and former parade grand marshal, I could not be more pleased," she said.
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