By Sebastien Malo
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Gay rights activists and elected officials said on Tuesday they would continue to protest New York City's main St. Patrick's Day parade even as organizers prepared to let a gay group carry a banner this year for the first time in the parade's history.
The problem, they say, is that the group, an organization of gay NBCUniversal employees, does not represent gay Irish-American people at an event that marks the most prominent celebration of Irish heritage in the United States.
"The issue has never been about having a gay group in the parade," Daniel Dromm, a City Council member, said at a news conference outside City Hall. "It has always been about having an Irish gay group in the parade. For the parade organizers to try to pull this trickery by allowing an organization called OUT@NBC to march in the parade is not a solution."
After years of mounting criticism from activists and corporate sponsors, including last year's boycott by Mayor Bill de Blasio, organizers said in September they would end their policy of barring gay groups from displaying banners, flags or pins.
They allowed only the group from NBCUniversal, which broadcasts the parade, to join on March 17, but suggested similar groups may be able to apply for the 2016 parade. The move placated many critics, but not all.
"They're not part of the Irish community, I've never seen them in the gay community," said Emmaia Gelman of the group Irish Queers, which has organized annual protests of the parade.
Comcast Corp, which owns NBCUniversal, says its gay employees group is one of the oldest such groups in corporate America, dating to 1986. Craig Robinson, an NBCUniversal executive vice president, said in a statement on Tuesday that the group's presence would be a "first step toward an increasingly inclusive era" for the parade.
The foundation behind the parade, which did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday, had long said participation of clearly identified gay groups would run against the event's roots in the Roman Catholic Church, which says gay and lesbian sex is sinful.
The parade, entering its 253rd year, is the oldest and largest St. Patrick's Day event in the country, according to organizers, drawing about 1 million people to Manhattan's Fifth Avenue.
In December, a group of gay and lesbian U.S. military veterans won approval to march in this year's St Patrick's Day parade in Boston.
(Editing by Jonathan Allen and Eric Walsh)