Today was the day of the annual Gay Pride parade in Albany NY. The parade goes up Lark Street -- Albany's alleged answer to Greenwich Village, and turns right at Madison Avenue. Southbound traffic along Lark diverges at this point, Lark continuing a few blocks more while most of the traffic goes left on Delaware Avenue. Between Lark and Delaware is Dana Park, a modest pedestrian island with some trees and park benches where small-scale neighborhood concerts are held during the summer. At the northern tip of Dana Park, where the identifying monument stands, you're across the street from where the parade makes its turn. At this point this afternoon stood a handful of people protesting the parade. These were Christian demonstrators, not "God Hates Fags" extremists but a group convinced that homosexuals needed to repent to save their souls. They made this point quite loudly as crowds lined the sidewalks waiting for the parade. Counterdemonstrators stood alongside them holding mocking signs while the lead protester railed on obliviously. While I watched the scene never turned seriously confrontational. Civility of a sort prevailed.
Apparently, no one questioned the right of these zealots to get in the faces of the gay-rights paraders, or at least to make sure that the sinners heard them. And while civility prevailed, I couldn't help thinking that, had this been any other public event with any kind of controversial potential, people who wanted to protest the event would have been exiled to a "free speech zone" where they could exercise their constitutional right well out of sight and hearing of those they wanted to confront. In Albany, no one felt that the gay-rights people needed to be protected from homophobic preachers -- not even the gay-rights people themselves, it seems, who were happy simply to mock the profoundly outnumbered protesters. If it seems that homophobes have more free-speech rights than other confrontational radicals, the problem is not that the homophobes enjoy favoritism -- I don't know if any officials even anticipated their appearance, though precedent suggests they should have -- but that today's spectacle, where deeply opposed groups both had their say in close proximity to each other with no harm done, should set an example for other controversial public occasions, yet doesn't. If homosexuals don't feel endangered by the nearness of people who (arguably) hate them -- things might have been different in France, I admit -- why do more powerful people fear the nearness of their critics. Neither side today may have taught the other a lesson, but together they may have taught the rest of us.