Wedded Bliss: 'Gay side will win and sky won't fall in'
His video about homophobia is an international sensation. Kim Bielenberg talks to Rory O'Neill – aka Panti Bliss – as the debate over same-sex unions heats up
Published 09/02/2014 | 02:30
It started with what could have been an innocuous chat show interview on RTÉ when the issue of homophobia and same-sex marriage came up in conversation.
Rory O'Neill, who makes his living as the drag queen Panti Bliss, was hardly a household name when he came on to talk to Brendan O'Connor on the Saturday Night Show.
He partly models his stage persona on Farrah Fawcett, the strikingly blonde actress who played a star role in the 1970s cop show Charlie's Angels. As Panti likes to put it, "You could be gorgeous and glamorous and also fight tough as a detective".
He was hardly expecting an unholy row when he came out of the studio at RTÉ. He said this week: "RTÉ staff seemed happy with the interview."
But the controversy that ensued after his remarks naming certain people as "homophobic", which resulted in RTÉ paying damages and apologising, went viral – and by the middle of this week was on the way to becoming a global phenomenon.
Panti Bliss, almost overnight, became a well-known figure. First there was Graham Norton who tweeted support to his own 655,000 followers.
Then Stephen Fry, who has a Twitter following of 6.5 million, chipped in with his endorsement followed by Dara Ó Briain. By the middle of the week, the drag queen from Ballinrobe, Co Mayo, was receiving a message of congratulations from Madonna. A video of Panti on YouTube was seen by 300,000 people by Thursday morning.
Perched on a stool of the Panti Bar, which he runs with a partner on Dublin's Capel Street, O'Neill told Weekend Review: "The controversy came completely out of the blue when I was not expecting it. At first it was very stressful, but then I found that I was getting incredible support, not just from the gay community, but old ladies in Tesco and women at the check-out."
He may have caused a stir on TV, for which RTÉ apologised and paid out €85,000 in damages, but he really struck a chord after he stepped on stage a week ago at the Abbey Theatre at end of the James Plunkett play, The Risen People. The speech was videoed and posted on YouTube.
In his persona as Panti Bliss, he made an impassioned rallying call about the sense of oppression felt by gay people in Ireland.
The row that prompted the speech hinges on different interpretations of the word homophobia, and when it should be used.
In a radio interview, Breda O'Brien, of the Iona Institute, had said it was important that debate should not be reduced to people hurling insults. She referred to a legal definition of homophobia as a "fear and loathing, and suspicion of people who are gay". She said it was an "appalling thing to throw at somebody".
In his speech at the Abbey Theatre, Panti offered a much broader definition of homophobia.
He said there was an element of homophobia in all of us, even including gay people: "Why wouldn't there be? We grow up in a society that is overwhelmingly homophobic."
He said he found himself checking his own behaviour when he was with his gay friends on public transport, because he was embarrassed by it. He felt that sense of shame to be oppressive.
Panti's definition of homophobia, hotly disputed by his opponents, encompassed those who actively campaigned against equal marriage rights for gay people.
David Quinn, of the Iona Institute, for his part said: "We want a calm and rational debate, but you can't have that when the second an opponent of same-sex marriage speaks he or she is called a homophobe."
Panti cleverly couched his speech in terms that could be easily understood internationally and quickly received support from all around the world.
A YouTube viewer Phil Devereux from Australia was typical of those who commented. He described the speech as "probably the most articulate and intelligent description of oppression I've ever heard".
In the upcoming debate over same-sex marriage the Iona Institute has found a formidable adversary in O'Neill. And it could be that the row causes the No side more harm than good in their campaign.
The resulting controversy has given a much greater airing to the issue of same-sex marriage and homophobia than would otherwise have been the case.
Already by Wednesday, the video was being shown in at least one school to students in transition year.
The row has galvanised support for the campaign for equal marriage rights for gay people, and in recent days has led to a sharp upsurge in donations.
O'Neill, who describes himself as an "an accidental gay rights campaigner", said: "I absolutely believe that the vast majority of people are good, decent and kind, and will support it.
"I am not desperate to get married myself, but I can see why many gay people do. They have grown up in a culture where marriage is seen as something to aspire to. Gay people should be allowed to aspire to it too.
"I am confident that the gay marriage side will win and people will see that the sky will not fall in."
O'Neill describes himself as "painfully middle class" with a chosen field of "gender discombobulation". He grew up as the son of a country vet in Mayo.
When he was at boarding school in Gormanston College in Co Meath, he was not bullied for being gay. He said: "I was slagged off about being from Mayo and using words like 'ye' and 'Mam'."
He said: "I didn't really know what being gay meant, and I only came out later after I left school. My parents knew I was a drag queen before they knew I was gay. I thought I came across as a flaming queen, but they were quite shocked.
"People think there is just one type of drag queen – like someone you might see at a show in Lanzarote – but there are as many different types as there are different sorts of comedians."
He shows me into a dressing room full of spectacular gowns and blonde wigs.
As the controversy went viral, O'Neill read some of the comments about Ireland on the internet.
"At times I felt that I wanted to add my own comments and say that Ireland was more tolerant than people felt."
On the issue of marriage equality, the tide seems to be flowing in favour of the gay rights campaigners.
One of the few recent surveys by Red C for Paddy Power suggests 76pc of the electorate would vote in favour of allowing same-sex marriage. Less than a fifth (18pc) of likely voters were opposed.
Quinn, of the Iona Institute, told Weekend Review: "At the moment the Yes side are favourites, but I still think we have a fighting chance. Results in referendums can be wildly different to opinion polls."
Gay rights campaigners can command backing from a well-educated, highly articulate group of supporters not only at home, but also abroad.
On the other side those campaigning in favour of what they see as "conservative traditional values" find themselves isolated. They are no longer able to get the backing of the main political parties. Even more significantly, the Catholic church itself has been half-hearted in its support for the traditionalists on same-sex marriage and other issues.
"The church has been badly scarred by the child abuse scandals, and lost its authority as a result," added Quinn.
There is a certain inevitability that same-sex marriage will become legal in Ireland, and even its opponents accept that once the law is passed there is no going back.
Panti may have lost a battle, but he will probably win the war.