Saturday 20 January 2018

Rory O'Neill on living with HIV: 'Most gay guys don't understand how far things have changed and how different it is'

He is the world's most famous Irish gay man - not least after Pantigate last year. Rory O'Neill tells Barry Egan about growing up in Ballinrobe, why he doesn't personally believe in marriage, how he can't find a serious boyfriend, and dating South Americans in Dublin

Growing pains: Rory O'Neill says that when he was growing up in Ballinrobe, he hadn't a clue what a gay was. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Growing pains: Rory O'Neill says that when he was growing up in Ballinrobe, he hadn't a clue what a gay was. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Rory O'Neill as Miss Panti.
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Rory O'Neill is stirring his morning coffee in the Morrison Hotel and considering the question. Has he ever had sex as his famous drag creation, the one and only, Panti Bliss? "I have, over the last 30 years, but incredibly rarely," he replies.

Does he imagine himself as a woman on those occasions?

"No. The couple of times that it has happened - when I was much younger - it was not because of some sort of plan. It was because I was out working in a nightclub and some hot guy comes on to you. But [sex] in drag is uncomfortable. So that has never had any appeal to me.

"I don't have the transvestite gene," he smiles.

Rory O'Neill has, however, the star gene. Possibly even - after his movie, The Queen Of Ireland, comes out internationally next week - the superstar gene too.

He hasn't watched it all the way through, his story, his moment, his movie. "I watched a rough cut a few months ago," Rory says, "which they showed me, in case I was going to freak out about something."

I say to Rory that I assume there was perhaps a few, ahem, legal changes. "Oh, yes, the whole Pantigate section was shrunk and shrunk and shrunk until RTÉ's lawyers were fine about it."

(For those of you who were orbiting Planet Earth on a space-ship for the last 18 months: in January 2014, Rory appeared on The Saturday Night Show with Brendan O'Connor where homophobia was discussed and the fallout resulted in RTÉ being sued and paying out a large sum, causing a hoohaa across the world, with everyone from Madonna to Graham Norton to Cher announcing their support for Panti. That was Pantigate.)

"But there was nothing really," Rory adds of edits, legal or otherwise, to The Queen Of Ireland. "People keep saying to me: 'Do you like it?' I don't know if I like it, because I'm too close to it."

Asked what he thinks of the bewigged blonde bombshell star of the movie, Rory roars with laughter: "Oh, I don't know! I just see it so differently to everyone else. I just look and go, 'Oh - my hair looks funny there!', 'Oh - I wish I wasn't smoking there!', whatever. And when your mother is in it, it is impossible to know whether it is good or not."

One of the emotional highlights of The Queen Of Ireland is when Rory in full Panti Bliss-drag splendour walks through his home town of Ballinrobe, Co Mayo, with his mother, Fin, and father, Rory senior. It was director Conor Horgan's idea, a suggestion that was first greeted by Rory with the simple reply: "No way". "And then I thought about it and I could see from Conor's point of view how it would be good for his movie," Rory says, adding that when he actually walked through his hometown as Panti with Fin and Rory senior he felt a million utterly mixed emotions. "It was so, so many things, because it was that thing that always made me feel uncomfortable in Ballinrobe, and not just because I was a kid."

"Even now, in my 30s and 40s. You know, there is always this thing - a gay boy or whatever," Rory says. "And to be suddenly walking up that street dressed as a giant, cartoon woman, with your mother and father, it was totally bizarre. It was slightly terrifying, sort of overwhelming, and lovely in another way."

In any event, the people of Ballinrobe all seemed to love this local gay boy dressed as a giant, cartoon woman. "Yes, they did," Rory smiles. "There is a few things happening there. Ireland has moved on in so many ways. But, also, anybody from a small-town that does anything, they are proud of you. Sometimes I think even if I murdered somebody they'd be proud of me!" he laughs. "I think maybe 15 years ago they wouldn't have been quite so proud, but I think now they are. I think the timing of it was so perfect, because it was seven days after the (same-sex marriage) Referendum. Mayo voted yes in the Referendum. I'm sure Ballinrobe did."

After Rory finished the show in a marquee tent in the town, he walked in drag back down to the family house 150 yards away with his parents. Once there Panti got out of his frock in the living room and went to join his friends from Dublin in the local pub. Halfway there, Rory realised he had forgotten his wallet and ran back into the house. As he did, his parents - his dad is 80 and his mum 77 - were sitting on the sofa, side by side, holding hands. "I thought: 'Oh my god! That is so adorable.'"

He describes his parents as "traditional in so many ways, and Catholic, even super-Catholic I would say. They kneel down beside their bed every night to say prayers. My mother is a minister of the Eucharist. They go to mass a few times a week."

Did they believe that the spirituality of love - be it heterosexual or homosexual love - somehow transcended their religious beliefs?

"I don't know if I would go that far, but they were never Carrie's mum. You know in the movie Carrie where her mum is super crazy religious? They were never that. They were never bashing us over the head with it. But we were expected to do all the things that every Catholic kid is supposed to do."

But his parents weren't telling Rory that his sexuality was a sin against God?

"No. When I came out, my dad didn't bat an eyelid. It never bothered him. It definitely took my mother a little longer, and that was all to do with being super-Catholic. But they were never Bible-bashers. They are very thoughtful Catholics. My mother always has theology books by the side of her bed. So I never felt like I had ultra-Catholic parents."

While Rory wasn't quite like the local Oscar Wilde as a young teen in Ballinrobe, he was, he says, "definitely the gay kid, but I wasn't like a flamer. I definitely never fitted in in Ballinrobe. I never felt comfortable, once I hit puberty, and even before that."

In fact, Rory has a clear memory of one of the primary school teachers trying, he recalls, to harass him to go to GAA football training. Rory announced to the class: 'I don't like football.'

"And the whole class looked at me like I was from fucking Mars," Rory recalls now. "They just didn't get it. And the teacher didn't get it. 'How could I not like football?'"

Rory says he knew he was "different" from the age of 12. "I wouldn't be able to put my finger on it, because I didn't even know what a gay was," says Rory, who is 46 now.

"This was before the internet. I hadn't a clue what a gay was." Rory adds that he doesn't think he really "named" his sexuality until he was 17. "I definitely was suspicious, but it was so alien of an idea. I didn't know a single gay person. I had no frame of reference for homosexuality. I'd never met a gay person. I'd never even seen one. There wasn't even any gays on the telly, or if there were they were just characters in a joke. That seems so weird now. But that's the way it was."

Despite all this, Rory O'Neill had, he says, a great family in a lovely house with a big garden and loads of animals. "And unlike so many people I know, I actually like my family," he says, meaning Fin and Rory senior and his siblings, Clare, Edel and Auveen and two brothers, Lorcan and Fergal. "We all like each other and get on. We're all really different but there was never any horrible conflict. But I was always wilful."

Rory adds that he doesn't feel he inherited that trait from his parents as he doesn't "think either of them are particularly like that. But possibly in some weird way," he continues, he might have picked up something from his father, "because he is incredibly laid back. He doesn't let anything phase him. And in a weird way, I think it is some kind of mirror image of that. You know - I refuse to feel pressured."

Panti says in the film that he hasn't always brought 'nice things' to his parents - in particular, his gay-ness, his HIV-ness. Did he feel somehow guilty for doing that to them?

"The gay thing, not really," Rory says, "because in a way I felt like that is nothing to do with me. Obviously, that wasn't nice or pleasant or easy but I didn't feel that it was in any way my responsibility. But the HIV business, yes - God that was much harder, because there was this shaming around it and in a way you kind of end feeling, 'This is me: I'm bringing this to them.' So that was much harder."

That shaming "is not as strong now, I guess, but it is still there, that sort of thing of: 'Oh well. What did you do to deserve that?'"

He also says in The Queen Of Ireland that meeting someone new and having to tell them he is HIV is "like coming out each time."

"It is, yeah," Rory says. "That part still lingers, because I'm single. I date. And every person I date I have to have that conversation."

Even now? Surely most gay men in Ireland would know that about him?

"Well, you would think," Rory answers, "except that I'm 46 years old; I'm fucking Panti; I've been around the scene for however many years and all the Irish gays know me and I know them. So I would rarely date an Irish person. I can't even remember the last time I dated an Irish guy because they're not interested in me because I am Panti."

"They all want to be my friend," he explains. "They all think I'm interesting and smart. But they don't want to shag me."

Would there not be an element of star-fucking for Irish gay men with Panti?

"I wish! I wish! I wish!" Rory O'Neill laughs - as possibly Panti cries inside him.

"No, the drag thing is weird. Or, you know, they are too young, the ones that might want to and I'm like: 'I ain't no daddy!'"

Has Rory had men say to him that they don't want to have sex with him because he is HIV?

"Oh, God, yeah!"

I ask Rory does he think some gay men are HIV-phobic. "Oh, God, yeah. Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! For start, they don't - they should! - but most, or a lot, of gay guys don't understand how far things have changed and how different it is. They don't understand the technical details of being undetectable. I'm in this category for a long time," he explains, "and if you take the meds nowadays like you should, it eradicates all the virus from the body, and they can't find it when they look for it. It is called undetectable."

"Now, unfortunately, tiny parts hide way in little parts of your body that the drugs don't get to and if you stop taking the drugs, then it will come back. But essentially now you are undetectable and technically you are not infectious or anything because there is no virus running around in your blood. But most gays are not that [clued in] . . . they are not doctors, and they are not reading this stuff every day. So a lot of them don't really understand that. They are vaguely aware.

"But HIV, the word, and AIDS, the word, still has this big fear thing around it. So most guys will be freaked out when you tell them that," he says, referring to his HIV diagnosis in 1995.

Rory also describes in the movie being told he was HIV positive as a day that was an ordinary day for everyone else outside but for him it "wasn't an ordinary day". Rory says now that he got over the HIV diagnosis pretty quickly.

"I have this ability and sometimes I think it is a blessing and sometimes I think it is a curse to just not worry about things. I just put it into this box at the back of my head and forget about it. And when something like that happens to you it [this ability] is a blessing, because there ain't no point in worrying about it. People say: 'Oh, you shouldn't bottle things up'. I'm not bottling it up. I'm just compartmentalising it and deciding: 'I'm not going to worry about it.'"

"You know," he continues, "because it doesn't matter that someone tells you are out of time or you are dying or whatever - you still have to pay the fucking bills, wash the dishes."

Is he in a relationship? Does he live on his own? "No, no. Me and the dog," Rory laughs referring to his four-legged friend, Penny.

"I date. But I am not in a relationship."

I ask him does his mother ever ask him when is going to meet a nice man and settle down. "No. She knows me better. I've never really been good at it. Of course, I've had boyfriends and all that. I've had a couple of serious ones along the way."

Why wasn't he good at it?

"I don't know. Maybe I'm too wilful."

Is he frightened of rejection?

"No. I'm totally open to the idea. Maybe I go for the wrong ones." What kind of men is he sexually attracted to? "Anybody from south of the Mediterranean!" he laughs. "Some people go: 'Oh, all the handsome men are from Norway.' I'm like, 'Really? No!'' So are the dark-skinned Latin men he finds sexually attractive essentially the opposite of the white-legged young men of his youth in county Mayo?

"That's exactly it. It is all about being exotic. When I was a kid I was obsessed with Spanish men and French men and everything, because that was as exotic as I knew!" he laughs. "And then as my world vision expanded!"

"Like, growing up in Ballinrobe," Rory continues in that epically entertaining way of his, "anyone who had a tan was exotic! There was one family in the town that all tanned really well and everybody wanted to be one of the Moores because they had great tans. It was that Irish thing of big brown eyes. That definitely rubbed off on me. I wanted everything to be exotic."

Does he believe settling down is almost like a quaint heterosexual notion?

"I would love to say yes it is," Rory replies, "because gays should be more open to finding other ways of being happy; not being so traditional about things."

So he doesn't want marriage then, I tease.

"Well . . . I have never personally wanted it," he laughs. "That's why I always laugh at me being some sort of weird figurehead [for gay marriage] because I have never wanted it, particularly. But it is easy for me to say that because I am not madly in love. Maybe that would change if I was, but it has never been a driving force for me. I liked the fact that gays were outside of the traditional norms."

Hasn't homosexuality lost its outsider qualities? It is like street fashion that has been co-opted by the mainstream establishment? "That's what I first found exciting about being gay - the underground quality and the outsider status. I definitely worry about the main-streaming of gayness. I am the kind of person who preferred Manhattan 20 years ago to now when it is cleaned up. I feel homosexuality now is a bit like Manhattan: it has all been nicefied."

"The reason I was so strongly in favour of marriage equality is that I see it as an equality issue," Rory continues, "and if gays want to be boring and the same as everybody else, they should be allowed to be. And the truth is most gays do want to settle down and have a Labrador and a picket fence. And I wanted to be everything that wasn't. Most gays, like most people, have very prosaic and pedestrian ambitions. And maybe I'd want that if tomorrow I bumped into the man of my dreams."

About six months ago, Rory took a notion that he felt he should have a boyfriend and he put on his personal Rory O'Neill Facebook page - as opposed to his Panti Facebook page - to his closest friends: 'C'mon people. You should set me up on a blind date.'

"Not a single person did," he laughs now.

When was the last time he was a on date? "It depends on your definition of a date. The last time I got laid was only two days ago, but that was bump-into-someone-in-a-bar kind of thing."

When Rory wakes up in bed next to someone new, does the other person say to him: 'Are we going to see each other again?'

"Some of them I want to say that and they don't!" he laughs. "And some of them they say that and I don't want them to!"

Rory is currently "dating a lot of foreign guys. They don't always know who Panti is. The Dublin gay scene is so full of South Americans now."

The queen of Ireland from Co Mayo pauses for dramatic effect, before adding with a hysterical burst of laughter: "Thank God!"

The Queen Of Ireland is on general release from October 23.

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