THE QUEEN BEE
Ireland’s gay marriage referendum was shaped by a drag artist named Panti Bliss, writes Rosemary Neill
It is hard to imagine a less likely Irish heroine than Panti Bliss. She stands just over 2m tall in her heels, fishnets and big blonde wig; a self-described “giant cartoon woman” and “national f..king treasure”. Panti is the drag queen alter ego of 47-yearold Rory O’Neill, a native of the humble market town Ballinrobe in County Mayo, who unwittingly became a catalyst for the resounding yes vote in the Irish same-sex marriage referendum last year. In the euphoric hours following the poll, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and Ireland’s then deputy prime minister, Joan Burton, were photographed with Panti as supporters chanted her name in Dublin’s city centre. This accidental activist has since become part of Ireland’s establishment — a TEDx talk here, Person of the Year award there; even recording her own Queen’s Christmas message, dressed in a tweed suit and brooch.
She is indeed a national treasure (if an ambivalent one) as a new documentary about her, titled The Queen of Ireland, makes abundantly clear. But it wasn’t always like this. In fact, in 2014 Panti’s creator O’Neill found himself in the eye of a furious media and legal storm after he appeared on Irish national broadcaster RTE and accused certain conservatives of homophobia. O’Neill tells Review: “The conversation, I thought, was completely innocuous and I didn’t think I said anything of major import.”
As the documentary — to be released in Australia later this year — recounts, within days, five threatening solicitors’ letters landed on O’Neill’s doorstep; he and RTE were being sued for defamation by multiple aggrieved parties. RTE quickly caved in to these threats, apologised for the interview and paid damages to the complainants. When news of these payments leaked, a counter-reaction started on social media and eventually engulfed the mainstream media, until half of Ireland (along with celebrities Madonna, Cher and Graham Norton) seemed to be throwing their weight behind O’Neill and his right to free speech. The affair was discussed in the Irish and European parliaments, and the local press dubbed it “Pantigate”. Soon after, Panti gave a powerful (and painfully honest) speech on what it was like to live as a gay person in Ireland. The speech was uploaded to YouTube and went viral: it has been viewed more than 800,000 times. The Pet Shop Boys released a remix of it, titled The Best Gay Possible — Oppressive Dance Mix.
“Pantigate was entirely accidental,” O’Neill quietly insists when he meets Review in a hotel suite overlooking Sydney’s Darling Harbour during a recent visit to the Sydney Film Festival, where The Queen of Ireland was screened. O’Neill’s collar is tucked into a crew-neck jumper, hair close cropped; there is an unexpected conservatism about his dress, gestures and manner. He might be a commercial lawyer with a precise yet persuasive way with words.
The next day I see O’Neill dressed as Panti and he seems to have somehow enlarged himself. The Nancy Reaganesque wig and heels have added maybe 15cm; the subtly sequined jersey dress reveals an hourglass figure; the lipstick and false lashes inflate and accentuate his facial features. Interestingly, though, Panti’s reserve does not dissipate entirely; there is a withheld quality about her — she is no flaming queen. O’Neill explains that Panti “is not a fake, created character living in a fake world. She’s not, say, Dame Edna Everage, who in a sense can’t exist outside the theatrical world she’s created around her. Panti comes out of the gay club tradition where the line between the performer and character is very blurred. She’s a different version of me; she’s kind of rooted in the real.”
To what degree was Ireland’s best-known drag queen a factor in the successful referendum? “To a great degree,” answers the documentary’s director, Conor Horgan. “It did start a conversation that had never been had in Ireland before … We would not necessarily have had that referendum if the whole issue hadn’t been foregrounded in such a powerful way.”
In Ireland, things have turned around so much since Pantigate that one of the documentary’s financiers is RTE. Moreover, the broadcaster recently scheduled The Queen of Ireland as a showpiece program marking the centenary of the Easter Rising. “We were delighted by that, it did get up some people’s noses, but tough,” says Horgan. The film was released in Irish cinemas last year and set a box office record for a documentary’s opening weekend. “It was absolutely thrilling,” says the director. “Astonishingly good reviews.” (The film has also been released in Britain.)
Largely a biography of O’Neill/Panti, The Queen of Ireland is framed by the Pantigate scandal and the same-sex marriage referendum. O’Neill says of those who tried to sue him: “I won the PR battle in the end … they’d lost in the court of public opinion.” The plaintiffs have discontinued legal action. With a gleam in his eye, O’Neill says that “for a year, I was a little careful and once that year passed, I was like, ‘F..k it’ ”. Panti went back to “saying the unsayable”.
He groans, though, that Panti is “the world’s worst name”. Given that 1980s, recession-hit Dublin was a hard place to be “fabulous”, he moved to Japan and, to his surprise, started making a living as a drag queen on the club scene there. He called himself Letitia and worked with Lurline, an American drag queen. But Japanese patrons could not easily pronounce those names, so the duo started calling themselves “Candypanti”. “They are English words that the Japanese actually use,” explains O’Neill. “My problem is that when people heard it, they thought, ‘Is it going to be some kind of sexy act?’” (It wasn’t.) He jokes that “when Panti ended up becoming sort of establishment at home and her name was getting mentioned on news programs, sometimes I would hear a momentary pause — discomfort with saying my name on a serious news show”. He quips: “On the upside, people don’t forget it.”
O’Neill/Panti is right at home in Australia. He has performed drag shows in Sydney for Mardi Gras and led the inaugural Irish-Australian float last year. “I always love doing the live shows here,” he says, “because I think the Australian sense of humour is quite similar to the Irish one. Also there is a large Irish community here, so they like a little gift from home.” In a wry aside, he says: “Of course, Australia appre- ciates its drag queens. I know there are some Australians who are looking at Ireland and they’re annoyed that we got there [legalising same-sex marriage] first!” He believes it’s only a matter of time before it is legalised here: “I think marriage equality is coming to Australia in the near future, that’s just the way it is.”
Interestingly, he is ambivalent about how “Panti has become establishment [in Ireland]. The Prime Minister [Enda Kenny] has been to my bar because he thought it would make good political sense to be seen there. August universities give Panti honorary doctorates and she opens science fairs — it’s ridiculous. It also sort of charmingly brilliant.
“[But] it’s an odd situation for a drag queen to be in, especially because I got into it in the first place because it was underground and transgressive. Is it still possible to be underground and transgressive and discombobulating, and also on the cover of Good Housekeeping?”
O’Neill is HIV positive and he speaks candidly about this on camera. When he was diagnosed in 1995, the disease was virtually a death sentence, as there were few treatments available. “I was not expecting it,” he says in the film, revealing he was “f..king furious”. “It’s been a nightmare for my love life,” he continues onscreen. Telling potential new partners he is HIV positive is “like a constant coming out”. On top of that, he jokes, he has to break the news he dresses as a woman for work.
His parents, Fin and Rory Sr, are committed Catholics who have always supported their son and feature prominently in the documentary. That Ireland became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote seems remarkable given the country’s conservative Catholic identity — it was the last EU country to decriminalise homosexuality, in 1993, and abortion is still illegal.
O’Neill mentions the lack of choice for women and agrees the trajectory for Ireland’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community “from 1993 to full equality under the law last year, has been a remarkable journey”. The power of the Catholic Church in Ireland has been “decimated” by pedophilia scandals, but he reckons that ultimately, Irish voters “didn’t want to vote against people they know, their gay grandson or lesbian neighbour”. Says Horgan: “What has been really remarkable is just seeing how this once very conservative and Catholic country has taken this giant drag queen to its heart, as a symbol of what is good about Ireland today.” September 8. will be released on
IT’S AN ODD SITUATION FOR A DRAG QUEEN TO BE IN
Panti Bliss (aka Rory O’Neill), Ireland’s best-known drag queen