By Elizabeth Barber
BOSTON (Reuters) - Irish brewer Guinness said on Sunday that it would not participate in New York City's St. Patrick's Day parade this year because gay and lesbian groups had been excluded, costing organizers a key sponsor of the annual event.
The move came on the same day that Boston's Irish-American mayor skipped that city's St. Patrick's Day parade after failing to hammer out a deal with organizers to allow a group of gay and lesbian activists to march openly.
"Guinness has a strong history of supporting diversity and being an advocate for equality for all. We were hopeful that the policy of exclusion would be reversed for this year's parade," the brewer said in a written statement issued by a spokesman for its parent company, Diageo.
"As this has not come to pass, Guinness has withdrawn its participation. We will continue to work with community leaders to ensure that future parades have an inclusionary policy," Guinness said.
Last week New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would not march in the parade because gay and lesbian activists had been again precluded from taking part.
The loss of Guinness, one of the world's top beer brands originating in Dublin, Ireland, appeared to ratchet up the pressure on organizers even further.
On Friday, two other major beer companies, Sam Adams brewer Boston Beer Co and Heineken dropped their sponsorship of parades in Boston and New York, respectively, over the issue.
Representatives for the New York board of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, which has run the parade for more than 150 years, could not be reached for comment on Sunday afternoon.
Earlier in the day Boston Mayor Marty Walsh skipped his city's parade when he couldn't negotiate a deal with organizers, the conservative Allied War Veteran's Council, to allow members of MassEquality, one of Massachusetts' largest gay activist groups, to join.
"So much of our Irish history has been shaped by the fight against oppression," Walsh, the city's first Irish-American mayor in 20 years, said in a statement.
"As mayor of the city of Boston, I have to do my best to ensure that all Bostonians are free to participate fully in the civic life of our city. Unfortunately, this year, the parties were not able to come to an understanding that would have made that possible."
Despite Walsh's boycott, other prominent Democratic Boston politicians, including Representative Stephen Lynch, marched in the parade, which drew tens of thousands of spectators, some of whom expressed disappointment at MassEquality's exclusion.
"It's supposed to be a time when everyone can come together," said university student Jeyashri Sridhar, 18. "It's sad that people can't participate because of who they are."
Organizers of St. Patrick's Day parades in New York and Boston, among the most liberal-leaning cities in the United States, have come under increasing criticism in recent years for banning openly gay marchers.
Parade organizers argue that to do so would conflict with their Roman Catholic heritage. The Catholic church contends that homosexual activity is immoral.
While MassEquality did not participate, the parade was not without gay marchers.
South Boston resident Randy Foster, along with his husband Steve Martin, organized a diversity-themed float that sported rainbow flags but no direct gay rights messages. Foster said the flags represented the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in Irish lore, though he acknowledged the gay-rights movement uses a rainbow flag.
"If there's a dual message to it, we're OK with it and so are the parade organizers," said Foster, 48. "We made the point of not making it a gay float. If we're going to have a message of inclusion, it shouldn't be for one group."
Massachusetts in 2003 became the first U.S. state to legalize gay marriage. Attitudes on gay marriage have changed markedly across the nation since then, with 17 states and the District of Columbia now allowing same-sex couples to wed.
(Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Scott Malone, Sophie Hares, Marguerita Choy and Eric Walsh)