There are very few people in this day and age who can claim to have touched millions with no more than the power of their oratory. Panti Bliss, alter ego of Rory O’Neill, is one of those few. Always an outspoken figure, she shot to international prominence in recent weeks following her statement on RTÉ’s Saturday Night Show that various media columnists and commentators associated with the Iona Institute were homophobic. Threatened with legal action, she spread her message in a historic speech on the stage of the Abbey Theatre Stage last month, in which she reminded all of us of the subtle nature of discrimination.
It was to recognise this oratorical skill and to honour a lifetime of activism for LGBTQ rights that European Law Students Association (ELSA) and the College Historical Society (Hist) presented Panti with an Equality Award and the Gold Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Discourse before a packed GMB Chamber last Tuesday.
Those who came to hear Panti speak were not disappointed. She began with an account of growing up in Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo – “a small town like any other – you all know it, even if you don’t” – and the discovery of both her opinions and her sexuality. The difficulty of growing up gay in 1970s rural Ireland was compounded by the fact that she “had no idea what gay was.”
Despite our many problems regarding LGBTQ equality, things are getting better. Young gay people no longer have to turn to the back pages of Hot Press magazine and make their way to a covert meeting in the Clarence Hotel, she said. Gay people no longer have to hide out in the dingiest corners of the most secretive bars. There are few people in Dublin who are unfamiliar with the George. The threat of arrest no longer hangs over Ireland’s gay people: we have come this far.
Though improvements have been made, Panti was quick to point out all that remains to be fixed. Her speech was a powerful ode to tolerance, saying that all people “should all be free to do whatever we want to achieve happiness.” Her message in the face of intolerance is to “back out of my life, and I will back out of yours.”
Central to the advancement of LGBTQ equality is the upcoming referendum on gay marriage. Panti urged those present to be active in its support, as it would be much harder sell than current opinion polls would have you believe. Strong campaigning would be necessary to assuage the fears of many in Ireland regarding marriage equality, particularly regarding adoption. That gay people are reduced to a sex act in a way that straight people never are was also highlighted. Everyone’s identity is infused by their sexuality, but due to her sexuality she would never be able to march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Boston on the same footing as her straight peers, though it cannot be disputed that Rory O’Neill from Co. Mayo is far more Irish than the majority of people who participate.
Ultimately, Panti’s message to the students of Trinity was a positive one. We all need to be more tolerant and less afraid of other people’s lives. Can this be achieved? Panti believes so. “Absolute human truth is on our side. The other side have none of the emotional, human truth. They cannot win.”
Photo: The Hist