The fabulous Irish gay icon and internationally acclaimed performer Miss Panti Bliss appeared on RTÉ’s Saturday Night Show last week. The mama of Irish drag queens and the rowdy landlady of the snazzy PantiBar on Capel Street, Panti performed an act before taking off the dress and sitting down to talk with Brendan O’Connor as her alter-ego Rory O’Neill.
It was put to O’Neill by O’Connor that ‘a lot has changed’ in Ireland with regards to tolerance of LGBT people. O’Neill responded that a lot has changed and that the audience all probably know someone who is gay. However he mentioned the fact that the tolerance had not seemed to have reached all corners of Irish society, stating that
“the only place that you see it’s ok to be really horrible and mean about gays is on the internet in the comments and people who make a living writing opinion pieces for newspapers”.
When asked who he was talking about, O’Neill mentioned John Waters, Breda O’Brien and the Iona Institute. Following the interview, a complaint was made to RTÉ and the piece was taken down from the website. The piece and transcript of discussion was also removed from broadsheet.ie.
So my appearance on the Sat Night Show has been taken off the RTE Player because someone I mentioned is upset. Legally upset. *smile*
— Panti Bliss (@PantiBliss) January 14, 2014
Rory’s definition of what homophobia is, the subtleties and slightness of it, was innocuous; he in no way called anyone homophobic but mentioned that some people need to look at themselves, realize that they have certain tendencies and try to move past them. If certain columnists didn’t spend time writing about gay people, gay people wouldn’t have a need to discuss them when they are given an opportunity to do so. It was no wig-burning call to arms that elicits taking down and heavily editing a clip. The very part where he defines homophobia has been removed, but yes RTÉ, “a lot has changed” in Ireland.
RTÉ later put the clip back up and issued a statement saying that the clip was removed due to “potential legal issues and for reasons of sensitivity following the death of Tom O’Gorman”. Tom O’Gorman was found murdered in his home last weekend. O’Neill made absolutely no mention of O’Gorman on the show; he says the first he heard of those events was the following morning, much like the rest of us.
“LGBT people it seems, are only fit to be on TV to do a funny stage act in a funny voice, and then keep their mouths shut about the daily prejudices and hardships they receive.”
When I saw that Panti/Rory was going to be on RTÉ’s flagship Saturday night programme, I was thrilled. I couldn’t believe that someone who is not only a great entertainer and LGBT activist but also a successful businessperson and icon was to be allowed grace the halls of Montrose to sit and be beamed into the homes of families across the country. Families which may be dealing with someone coming out, families which lovingly embrace their LGBT children, siblings, and parents and families where there might be a young person looking for the message that they are not alone. I was sorely disappointed. LGBT people it seems, are only fit to be on TV to do a funny stage act in a funny voice, and then keep their mouths shut about the daily prejudices and hardships they receive. Not only was the initial “a lot has changed” assertion incredibly assumptive, but when O’Connor was told that homophobic elements still do exist within some elements of society, he swatted away any inkling of it.
“Try telling someone who reads pieces decrying ‘the gay lifestyle’ in national newspapers that homophobia isn’t real”
The fact is, homophobia is still rampant in Ireland. And the silencing of those who are victims of it is one of the ways it is kept alive. Try telling someone who reads pieces decrying ‘the gay lifestyle’ in national newspapers that homophobia isn’t real. Try telling to young people who are being raised by same-sex parents, and older people who have been raised by same-sex parents that they have never encountered homophobia, especially when these children are referred to as being somehow damaged and unhappy because of who their parents are. As a gay man but more importantly as someone who wants to give the next generation a better country than we’ve been handed, we must admit that there is homophobia. Just because we are on target to have a same-sex marriage referendum in 2015 does not mean we are suddenly a nation of accepting, tolerant people.
Sneaky words like ‘choice’ and ‘lifestyle’ are used by opponents of not just marriage equality, but anti-LGBT equality altogether. We are people who have not chosen to love who we love, but we will not be constrained by the remnants of the bigoted, narrow-minded, cross and crozier style rule that still defines so very much in this country. Not all LGBT people take part in the Pride Festival. Not all LGBT people want to get married or have children. All LGBT people want to be treated with dignity and respect.
RTÉ really let themselves down here, because though the murder of Tom O’Gorman is a travesty, the linking of it in their statement with the legal action being taken by an offended party might have some dangerous connotations. With the original interview not available and an obvious edit on the video that was put up on the RTÉ website, the ambiguous nature of the statement might lead some uninformed observers to believe that O’Neill mentioned O’Gorman in some way, something he has already had to make a statement about on twitter:
To clarify: I did not mention Tom O’Gorman on RTE Saturday night. The tragic incident involving Mr O’Gorman happened on Sunday morning. 1/2
— Panti Bliss (@PantiBliss) January 15, 2014
2/2 I can only assume the reference to Mr O’Gorman in the RTE statement relates to me mentioning his employer, the Iona Institute.
— Panti Bliss (@PantiBliss) January 15, 2014
Though if they have been threatened with legal action, it’s hard to go up against that. But when was the first time that someone in this country has been able to call out and sue a public figure for being homophobic or writing inflammatory things about LGBT people? Never. For a certain type of people who seem to be forever about the sanctity of their freedom of speech, they don’t extend the common courtesy to those who have no pulpit to speak from. The debates leading up to the marriage referendum in next year will be full of people who will swear that they have nothing against gay people. They’ll say that kids raised by same-sex couples end up damaged and that a ‘lifestyle choice’ can’t compete for the same rights that ‘human nature’ grants opposite -sex parents. These people will be given platforms to say what they want on the national airwaves. Will RTÉ bow to legal action if the H word is uttered during those debates? Or will they live up to their duty as national broadcaster and let people hear a balanced and sensible discussion?
Somehow, after this debacle I don’t think so, but I hope I’ll be proven wrong.
Follow Matthew on Twitter – @_mattuna