For the first time in history, LGBT groups will be marching under their own banners at Thursday’s iconic New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Hundreds of gay and lesbian participants are expected to walk in the Fifth Avenue event – and they couldn’t be more excited for the cultural and societal welcome.
“After 25 years of waiting, of exclusion, of protest, today we celebrate with our Irish community. Today, we are accepted,” Brendan Fay, founder of Lavender and Green Alliance, an Irish LGBT group, tells PEOPLE. “Today we cross a historic threshold as Irish people. And I have to say we are feeling the joy of this moment.”
After a pause he adds, “In fact, I think all of New York is feeling this moment.”
LGBT Irish groups had lobbied for years to be included in New York’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade – but boycotts and protests never led to change.
Advocates sued in the 1990s, but judges ruled that parade organizers had the right to decide who could march in the event, reports TIME.
“But today, goodness has overcome the prejudice,” Fay says. “Exclusion of LGBT Irish for over 20 years was a shadow over the parade. Now that cloud is gone and we are all shining inside.”
Daniel O’Donnell, the first openly gay man to be elected to the New York State Assembly, told PEOPLE in a statement: “Today marks another victory for the LGBT community in asserting their human rights. Ironically, Ireland voted in favor of marriage equality before the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, was announced. That being so, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade’s extension of the same equality to LGBT members is long overdue.”
“As someone who has advocated for and seen triumphs in Marriage Equality at home in New York and abroad in Ireland, today’s step forward is a just another assertion that equal rights for the international LGBT community is inevitable,” O’Donnell, who is the brother of Rosie O’Donnell, continued.
Fay says he will be marching proudly with his husband and 300 members of Lavender and Green.
Everyone in his contingent will be sporting a button that reads, “Cherishing all the children of the nation equally,” in reference to the 1916 proclamation of the Easter Rising in Ireland.
“The meaning is, of course, for a different purpose of what it was used for back then,” says Fay. “But it’s interesting that the phrase is as relevant for us New Yorkers as it was for the Irish a century ago.”
“New York City just got a little bit better. The organizers of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade have fully dropped their longstanding ban on allowing gay groups to march under their own banners,” he wrote on March 2.
“New York wouldn’t be New York without the contribution of Irish New Yorkers, and today they have another reason to be proud of that contribution,” he adds.
“I think the issue itself in society here in the U.S. and in Ireland has evolved rapidly,” John Leahy, chairman of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Board of Directors, told The Wall Street Journal.
Over 200,000 people are expected to march in Thursday’s historic parade.