New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday he would not march in Manhattan's annual St. Patrick's Day parade -- becoming the first mayor in 20 years to boycott the event -- but he rejected a call by gay rights activists to ban uniformed city employees from participating.
Event organizers have long prohibited gay groups from bearing signs, pins or other displays noting their sexual orientation. De Blasio said that he has not marched as an elected official in the past and added, "I simply disagree with the organizers of that parade in their exclusion of some individuals in this city."
He would not, however, endorse an open letter addressed to him and signed by Public Advocate Letitia James, State Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan), other present and former officials and dozens of gay activist groups and their supporters.
"I believe that uniformed city workers have a right to participate if they choose to, and I respect that right," the mayor said when asked about the letter during a City Hall news conference.
The letter said the presence of uniformed police officers, firefighters and other city workers "sends a clear signal . . . that these personnel, who are charged with serving and protecting all New Yorkers, do not respect the lives or safety of LGBT people."
Former mayors Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani -- both supportive of gay rights -- marched in past St. Patrick's Day parades, which run along Fifth Avenue and draw about 1 million spectators. Former Mayor David Dinkins, like de Blasio a Democrat, was booed and pelted with beer cans for marching with gay activists in 1991 in defiance of the ban. He boycotted in 1992 and 1993.
Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Comptroller Scott Stringer also said they would boycott this years's March 17 parade. De Blasio said he would participate in other events celebrating Irish heritage that day. Mark-Viverito had no immediate comment on de Blasio's rejection of the ban on uniformed city workers.
Parade organizers didn't return calls for comment. Spokesmen for police and fire unions had no immediate comment.
Catholic League president Bill Donohue, who marches annually with his conservative group, said in a statement he is "delighted" that de Blasio won't march.
Donohue said the parade is "not about homosexuals, or abortion, or anything other than honoring St. Patrick."
Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), an openly gay Irish-American arrested at the 2000 parade for marching with a gay-pride banner, called de Blasio's boycott a "strong stand against discrimination."
He expected the conversation on taking further action would continue with the mayor: "It's only fair to give him the time and the space."