The drag queen who changed Ireland

The drag queen who changed Ireland
From accidental activist to icon — As an outspoken gay performer living with HIV, Panti Bliss has become an unlikely – but empowering – ambassador for a once-conservative country.

For most activists, helping to steer your country towards one of its most profound changes – becoming the world’s first to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote – would represent a crowning achievement.

But for Panti Bliss, it marked a new beginning. The momentum began three years ago when Panti’s alter ego, Rory O’Neill, appeared on a prime-time talk show to discuss gay rights in Ireland.

But when he singled out two journalists and a Catholic advocacy group for being homophobic, both O’Neill and the TV network were sued for defamation.

The broadcaster tried to make the problem go away by apologising, settling out of court and removing the footage from its online archive – sparking a national media scandal dubbed ‘Pantigate’.

Panti responded by giving a speech that became a viral sensation, inspiring an outpouring of international support (including a dance remix by the Pet Shop Boys) and turning her into a symbol of forward-looking Ireland.

A year later, the successful campaign for same-sex marriage cemented Panti’s status and paved the way for a wider cultural impact. There was an acclaimed documentary film, a string of sold-out shows around the world, an honorary doctorate from Trinity College, a radio series and a flourishing Pantibar in Dublin.

But as we speak, the gap between 21st-century Irishness and the country’s deep-rooted conservatism remains an issue.

Activists are pushing hard to overturn Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion. Having a gay presence in a St. Patrick’s Day parade is still controversial. The legacy of the country’s Catholic care homes continue to be grappled with.

Panti Bliss, however, is still putting things in perspective: using a remarkable personality to get people talking about delicate issues.

When you’re connecting with international audiences, what perceptions of modern Ireland do you encounter?
I think, for the most part, people are still 30 years behind in terms of their perception of us. There’s often this shocked reaction to the idea that Ireland, of all places, would have voted for marriage equality. It’s as if they see us through the prism of old movies. But in a weird way, the referendum was a wake-up call for the rest of the world.

What about their reaction to you as such a successful cultural export?
[laughs] I think people are just as surprised. The reason I got into drag was because it was so underground and transgressive. It’s essentially punk: a ‘fuck you’ to society’s expectations of how you should behave.

So for a drag queen to become this figure in Ireland of all fucking places is both hilarious and weird. But that it’s even possible says something good about us. I think that’s to do with the country’s personable nature: because the place is so small, it’s relatively easy to make people see you as a real person.

The power of personal storytelling played a big part in the campaign for marriage equality. Do you think it can have a similar effect in the current campaign for abortion rights?
Oh, absolutely. One hundred percent. I think it’s interesting to look at the lessons learned there. People connected with the issue by sharing their story, whether it was on a public platform or just at the canteen table at work.

I’m old enough to remember the previous abortion referendum and never did anyone come forward to say, ‘Actually, I’m one of those women.’ That’s happening this time and it’s amazing to see.

We do have a tradition of keeping things to ourselves. You’ve said before that the majority of us know people who are HIV-positive – we just don’t realise it because it’s not talked about.
It’s true, Irish people don’t like to talk about this stuff. But the single most important thing anyone did for gay liberation was to come out. It’s hard to hold prejudices against someone you actually know. The same applies to living with HIV, abortion or whatever it is. By keeping it a secret, you’re keeping the problem alive.

Just yesterday I was contacted by [national TV broadcaster] TG4 who want to make a film about the stigma around HIV+ …but they can’t find anyone to share their personal experience on camera. So they end up coming to me! There’s a young guy called Robbie Lawlor but other than that, most people wouldn’t dream of it. And that’s a problem.

You went travelling around the world before coming back to Ireland in 1995 and, for the first time, saw yourself staying there. As the years passed, did you foresee Ireland’s rate of progress as a society?
No. If you had said to me in 1995 that the gays would be getting married in 2016, I would have laughed. I ran out of here in 1990 thinking there was never going to be a time to come back.

Then with the Celtic tiger kicking in, and people starting to move here rather leave, you could see the place changing for the better. I felt a huge sense of opportunity. But I never thought change would end up being as dramatic as it is now. I don’t think anyone envisaged that.

I’m generally a positive person. We’ve made amazing progress and should be pleased with that but there’s still loads more to do, whether it’s women’s reproductive rights, travellers’ rights, the direct provision system – all these things are a real shame for us.

But I’m also lucky enough to travel a lot and that gives you perspective. Sometimes you can fall into a black hole and think, ‘We’re the worst country in the world. Everything’s fucked.’ But travelling makes you realise that we’re no more fucked than anywhere else. Occasionally we even manage to do things better than other places.

Pantigate felt like a paradigm shift: a sign that homophobia and oppression were largely on the way out. In the build-up to the marriage referendum, there was such a furore around the ‘No’ vote – it was said that people in rural areas wouldn’t go for it – and in the end it was an emphatic victory.

So when I was living in London for the build-up to Brexit, all the hype and fear-mongering felt familiar – as it did again with Trump – but it proved well-founded in both cases. Suddenly all that optimism seemed naive. Do you put that down to being in a ‘liberal bubble’?
I think everyone was pulled up by Brexit and Trump. These things aren’t set in stone and part of me thinks it’s the last sting of a dying wasp. A lot of the people who voted for Brexit, for example, are motivated by this weird nostalgia for a world that never existed anyway. Even if it did exist, it’s impossible to go back. You can’t suddenly stop cheap flights between countries. You can’t just stop the Internet.

The world is growing in this direction and I think people trying to go the opposite way can’t resist it forever. [laughs] Things can clearly go backwards but I do firmly believe in that old Martin Luther King quote that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice.

If we step back and take a wider perspective, it’s undeniable that the world is a better place than it was 50 years ago – and so on. We’re having a bit of slippage globally at the moment but I’m optimistic enough to believe that in 100 years’ time, the world will be in an even better place.

When you’re a pioneer, you don’t really get to enjoy the progress as it’s being made. Not long ago you met 20 young gay people from Ballinrobe [the small village Panti is from in County Mayo] at your bar, which must be something you never imagined…
Absolutely! These kids from Ballinrobe are going to their gay uncle’s wedding; they’re giving their lesbian neighbour a card when she gets engaged. That’s momentous. It changes how they see the world.

When I was 15, I had never met a gay person let alone seen my parents going off to a gay wedding. Now young people are so much more educated about social issues. It’s incredible to me. I give talks in schools and they have their own gay clubs. You’ll meet a 15-year-old girl identifying as transgender and all her classmates are fine about it. It’s an entirely different world and some of those changes will be hard to row back on.

In sharing your story in public, have you found that there’s something about it that anyone can connect with?
In my show I’m telling real stories from my life – pretty wild stuff to be sharing with your average punter. That’s the power of someone telling their own story. It may look different from the outside but people can relate, which is an incredible thing.

One of the arcs in the show is about small-town life. It doesn’t matter if I’m telling those stories in Bosnia-Herzegovina or Perth or Colorado; lots of people know what it’s like to grow up in a small place and see it change.

So I’ve found that it doesn’t matter how outrageous my story is. There are parts that everyone can connect to, whether you went to a regular school, became a mother and worked part time at a gym or whatever else it may be. The outrageous parts just make a little bit more entertaining! [laughs]

Has becoming a national treasure made life easier when you’re dating someone new, since there’s less delicate stuff to reveal now that your life is so out in the open?
It does and it doesn’t. It’s true that if I meet someone in Dublin, chances are they know a lot about me and I don’t have to explain all that. On the other hand, I haven’t dated an Irish guy in about 15 years. [laughs]

Often when I have a first date it’s with someone who hasn’t been in Ireland long. If I meet them online, like most people do these days, sometimes I do have to drop a bombshell. We might be on the second date and I’m like, ‘Well, when I said I was a performer, what I meant was…’ [laughs]

In that famous video of your speech, you talk about having to check yourself at pedestrian crossings. Now, after such a sustained outpouring of affection and support, do you feel any differently about yourself in that way?
I don’t think it’s changed how I see myself but it has made me more relaxed about being entirely myself here. I do check myself less. For starters, what the fuck do I have to check myself about? Everybody knows everything about me!

Before the referendum, I suspected and hoped that most Irish people were fine with the gays. But I didn’t actually know that. People in most countries don’t know that.

Whereas now Irish queers quantifiably know. We all debated it endlessly for months and I can say that at least 62 per cent of the population are totally fine with it. In fact it’s probably far more than that.

I imagine plenty of people weren’t going to vote no but at the last minute saw some posters saying gays were going to murder children or whatever – and I’d say a lot of them regret that now that they see everything is fine.

That’s had a liberating effect on me and the rest of the gay community here. It’s definitely easier to be totally myself on the streets of Dublin than it was even four years ago.

Do I still check myself? Of course I do. I grew up in a homophobic society and that’s something that becomes so deeply ingrained in you that it’s hard to get rid of. But does it happen a lot less than it used to? Absolutely.

For more information on Panti’s High Heels in Low Places tour, check out the Soho Theatre website or  Panti Bliss on Facebook.

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