- New York St. Patrick's Day parade organizers said that they will allow first ever LGBT group to march in 2015
- The change ends longstanding ban that drew national criticism and corporate boycotts
- Last March, Mayor Bill de Blasio declined to march, and Guinness and Heineken pulled out as sponsors
- GLAAD president: "I'm cautiously optimistic that this is definitely an important and historic step ..."
New York St. Patrick's Day parade organizers Wednesday said they will allow the first ever LGBT group to march in 2015 with an identifying banner -- ending a longstanding ban that drew national criticism and corporate boycotts.
The group being allowed to march was the only LGBT affiliated group to apply, said William O'Reilly, a spokesman for parade organizers. He said other LGBT groups can apply to march in 2016. The New York parade is the nation's oldest.
O'Reilly said LGBT community members have always been encouraged to march under the traditional apolitical banners of other marching groups.
New York City's St. Patrick's Day parade, which has been held for more than 250 years, historically banned LGBT groups from marching under their own banner. That's changing.
Last March, Mayor Bill de Blasio declined to march in the Manhattan parade, and Mayor Martin Walsh sat out the event in Boston, where a similar ban remains in place.
Three of the country's biggest beer companies also withdrew their sponsorships because gay and lesbians were excluded.
Sam Adams, owned by Boston Beer Co., pulled out as a sponsor for the Boston parade, and Guinness and Heineken pulled out from the New York parade.
"This is progress," de Blasio told reporters, adding that he needed more information before deciding whether to march next year. "What I've called for for a long time is an inclusive parade. This is a city of inclusion."
Gay rights advocates also applauded the change.
"It's about time," Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD, said in a statement. "Discrimination has no place on America's streets, least of all on Fifth Avenue. As an Irish-Catholic American, I look forward to a fully inclusive St. Patrick's Day Parade that I can share with my wife and children, just as my own parents shared with me. Until then, parade organizers must be held accountable to ending this ban once and for all."
In an interview, Ellis said de Blasio's refusal to march and the loss of corporate sponsors were the "straws that broke the camel's back."
"I'm cautiously optimistic that this is definitely an important and historic step in the right direction but I will be watching to see how this unfolds over the next year," she said.
The gay group marching in New York this year is Out@NBCUniversal, a resource group of LGBT employees at NBCUniversal, according to O'Reilly.
"WNBC-TV has long been the broadcast partner of the Parade, so there was a relationship already established," O'Reilly said via email.
In Boston, no change in policy has been announced but longtime gay activist Cathy Renna said she hoped the New York decision will "make folks in Boston rethink their position."
"They really need to get with the times," Renna said.
But Boston parade organizer Philip Wuschke. Jr. told CNN that no change was planned.
"Many gay people march in Boston's St. Patrick's Day Parade," he said.