THE QUEEN BEE

Ire­land’s gay mar­riage ref­er­en­dum was shaped by a drag artist named Panti Bliss, writes Rose­mary Neill

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - The Queen of Ire­land

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

RORY O’NEILL

Panti Bliss (aka Rory O’Neill), Ire­land’s best-known drag queen

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