How Rory O’Neill helped Ireland choose to allow gay marriage

Queen of Ireland Panti Bliss greets supporters during the lead-up to the Irish referendum on gay marriage. Picture: Getty
Queen of Ireland Panti Bliss greets supporters during the lead-up to the Irish referendum on gay marriage. Picture: Getty
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Rory O’Neill, aka drag queen Panti Bliss, tells Paul Whitelaw how he helped Ireland choose to allow same-sex marriages

When Rory O’Neill, alias Irish drag queen Panti Bliss, appeared on an RTE chat show in 2014, little did he realise that his appearance would spark controversy and play a vital role in Ireland’s history-making same-sex marriage referendum. When the host pressed him to elaborate on remarks about homophobic voices within the Irish media, the people he named threatened RTE and O’Neill with legal action. The state broadcaster swiftly apologised and paid monies to the aggrieved parties, including Catholic pressure group the Iona Institute.

There’s still a stigma about HIV among gays – they should know better

Rory O’Neill/Panti Bliss

Shortly afterwards, O’Neill publically commented on the furore with an impassioned anti-homophobia speech from the stage of Ireland’s national theatre, The Abbey. When it was posted on YouTube, his eloquent rallying cry became a global internet sensation. “Pantigate” ensued.

Esteemed Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole described O’Neill’s monologue as “the most eloquent Irish speech” in almost 200 years. The clip was translated into Chinese and Russian. It was even discussed in the Irish parliament. The debate raged on. On 23 May 2015, when the Republic of Ireland voted “Yes” to same-sex marriage, O’Neill’s position as one of the movement’s guiding lights was confirmed. Not bad for a self-described “accidental activist”.

O’Neill makes his Fringe debut this year with High Heels in Low Places, a sometimes funny, sometimes serious monologue which inevitably expands upon the Pantigate phenomenon. “It’s the story of how a young boy from the West of Ireland becomes a drag queen, and how that drag queen ends up as a sort of establishment figure in Ireland by accident. It’s about a change in Ireland,” he says.

More than a year on, he still sounds astonished by the far-reaching effects of his speech.

“At the time I thought nothing of it. Before all that I’d been doing my theatre shows. I have a bar in Dublin. I was reasonably well known in arty circles and the gay community. But after appearing on this chat show, the thing rolled on for months and became this huge big scandal about censorship, freedom of speech and homophobia. In the middle of all that I made this speech, and when that exploded it came as an absolute shock to me. I had no expectations, I make lots of speeches.”

Does he think his actions had a direct impact on the result of the gay marriage referendum?

“We’re used to having referendum debates, and we know that they can generally get very nasty and emotive. But because the whole country a year previously had had this huge, deep conversation for the very first time, in some ways by the time we got to the referendum, half the conversation had already been had. That meant that the referendum discussion was much less rancorous and nasty than it might’ve been. I think half the country were already well convinced because of what had happened around Pantigate. By accident it ended up being a good thing.”

One of the cornerstones of O’Neill’s speech was his dire warning about bigots in the media who seek to suppress freedom of speech by attempting to control the use of language. “A spectacular and neat Orwellian trick,” in his words.

“These days, even people who are virulently anti-gay and actively campaign against rights for gay people, they don’t want to be called homophobic. I think that’s at the root of why I was sued for defamation,” he says.

“Those people knew that there was going to be a referendum about gay marriage, and they wanted to lay down the rules of the debate. And one of those rules was that nobody could use the word ‘homophobic’, because if somebody says in a debate that they don’t think gays should get married, well then somebody else can say, ‘You would say that, you’re a homophobe.’ It sort of ends the debate. So they wanted to get that word banned, essentially.”

Twenty years ago O’Neill was diagnosed with HIV, hence his involvement with The Sick of the Fringe. While he agrees that some progress has been made regarding positive awareness of the illness, he has “absolutely no doubt” that stigma still exists.

“In some ways I can understand that more in the wider community, as they don’t understand how treatments have changed and so on,” he says. “But there’s also a huge amount of stigma in the gay community, which annoys me even more because they should bloody well know better.”

Whenever he discusses the issue in public, he always receives a mountain of correspondence. “And often they’re horribly sad,” he says. “They’re from young people living in smaller cities and towns, they’re HIV-positive and they’ve never told another living soul apart from their doctor. They’ve never felt able to tell anybody, and it eats away at them.

“Also, stigma stops people from getting tested, which is why in my bar in Dublin we do rapid testing every weekend. It’s a way of normalising it.”

So does the accidental activist enjoy his role as a revered spokesqueen for oppressed minorities? It’s a double-edged sword, he admits.

“Here at home everything I say is pored over and taken very seriously. Sometimes I feel that when audiences come to my show now, they’re sitting there waiting to be inspired.

“I have to remind people that I’m actually also an entertainer. But it’s a balancing act. I want you to be entertained and it’s fun, but also come away with something serious.”

• Panti: High Heels In Low Places is at the Traverse Theatre from 8-14 August

SICK OF THE FRINGE HIGHTLIGHT EVENTS

Opening event

Official introduction to this year’s The Sick of the Fringe, featuring Wellcome director Dr Jeremy Farrar and TSOTF founders Brian Lobel and Tracy Gentles, plus guest performers drawn from the TSOTF programme.

University of Edinburgh Medical School, 8 August

Tickets To My Trauma

Event aimed at artists making work about themselves and their health, illness and disability.

Fringe Central @ Infirmary Street, 9, 17 and 25 August

Producers’ Gatherings

Hosted by Sally Rose and Xavier de Sousa, these gatherings aim to help connect independent producers, artists and those interested in the practice of producing, and will be aimed at those working around the themes of health, medicine, illness, disability and the body.

Traverse Theatre, 15 and 22 August

The Steve Nice Quiz Show

A health-themed edition of Steve Nice’s notorious quiz show at Doctors bar on Forest Road

Doctors, 16 August

• For details of all events see http://thesickofthefringe.com/