“Suddenly people are recognising me out of drag”, says Rory O’Neill “which is an entirely new experience!” As a young gay man, my awareness of Rory’s drag persona Panti Bliss has varied from Pride rally speeches to cocktails and a show in the glamorous PantiBar. Since performing on the RTÉ’s Saturday Night Show and the subsequent fallout from his interview, O’Neill has been at the centre of a month long debate about censorship, RTÉ, homophobia and oppression which has propelled him to national and international attention. He’s gone viral through the spread of his speech detailing ‘oppression’ and ‘checking’ oneself at pedestrian crossings. Sitting with him in PantiBar he tells me how after a unpleasant and exhausting few weeks of feeling like his side of the story would never be heard, the last week has been much better; speech in the Abbey Theatre has been viewed over 400,000 times and been tweeted about by Martina Navratilova, Stephen Fry and Graham Norton “It’s nice…it’s fun to have Martina Navratilova tweeting about me!”
What is also enjoyable about the last week though is the fact that regular Dubliners are making their support for him known on the street. Between being stopped for conversations with “Dublin blokes” who have gay children or by those who just want to lend their support and pose for a photo, O’Neill firmly believes that ordinary people are on his side; “in the first few weeks, unless you had seen the broadcast people probably thought ‘there’s no smoke without fire, he must have said something awful’. But now they’re being super nice and that’s lovely”. The support he is receiving from people on the street is so strong that it has replaced the nervous feeling of being approached by a stranger on the street with a sense of relief when they just want to shake his hand.
“Ordinary decent Irish people are not ideologues and they saw my side of the story as a real human story that affects real human people.”
Opponents of marriage equality though seem to think that the issue is not one of interest to the Irish people, with some saying that “ordinary decent people” have different issues to think about. The resulting discussions surrounding O’Neill’s appearance has seen those politicians who are not in favour of same-sex marriage back up their views by purporting to represent the Irish people, and saying that the “ordinary decent people” they meet while canvassing are not talking about what has been dubbed ‘Pantigate’. O’Neill dismisses this however. “They’re trying to paint a picture that it’s some Dublin 4 media concern, which is total bullshit because I know from walking on the streets and into Tescos that ordinary people do care, ordinary people have a sense of justice about it and ordinary people know gay people in their families.” O’Neill believes that the success of the Abbey speech is due in part to the humanity behind it. It brought the experiences of LGBT people in Ireland to the fore of the discussion in a way they might not have been presented before, and he believes that resonates stronger than anything else. It “won the war” and turned the battle around for O’Neill and was something that he was eager to do. “Ordinary decent Irish people are not ideologues and they saw my side of the story as a real human story that affects real human people.” Does he believe that sharing these human experiences will disrupt the narrative put forward by opponents of marriage equality? Yes. “Their side of the story is ideologically driven. They’ve invented these principles that they believe that they’re defending but these invented principles actually affect nobody. Letting gay people get married will only increase happiness in the world, it’s not going to destroy marriage. It’s driven by their own ideological concerns and that’s why regular decent Irish people when they got to see the whole story recognised that on one side there are real people whose real lives are being affected and on the other side are these ideologues.”
The conversation arising from O’Neill’s speech is one that has permeated into many facets of our society, judging by the responses to it he has received, from gay people but also many messages from straight people. He has gotten emails from people in wheelchairs who also feel that urge to check themselves, because of unwanted attention. He has gotten an email from a red headed man who feels the same urges to try blend in more at times with society. “So many people feel these types of urges. Yesterday I got an email from a straight guy who had seen me in the barber last week and he had wanted in the barber to say something to me but he ‘checked himself’ and felt that he didn’t have the courage to do it in the all-male environment of the barber.”
When it comes to the debate around media and accessibility, O’Neill feels that there is a problem for stories that stray outside the narrative. “I think there is reluctance in the Irish media to tell gay stories. The media in general in Ireland don’t like to take chances”, he says. Drag queens are mostly use for punch lines and the performance aspect of it is overlooked, something which puzzles him as he refers to the popularity of people like Lily Savage. “RTÉ have a low opinion of their audience and of Irish peoples’ ability to just be fun”. For him, the week leading up to his appearance on the Saturday Night Show was one filled with the challenge of crafting a three minute performance for the show. He hadn’t given a second’s thought to the interview and even afterwards felt like it had gone perfectly well. It wasn’t some pre-planned coup of the airwaves designed to denigrate opponents of marriage equality. “If you were to believe my detractors and hadn’t seen the interview you’d think I’d gone wild and started screaming and pointing at people and screaming homophobe and the live audience clutched their chest! But of course nothing like that happened, and the hilarious thing is that if they had just let it pass, then nobody would even remember that I’d been on that show.”
“I thought it was really wonderful to see them stand up in the Dáil and just say straight out ‘this happens to me, and you around me are all discussing it at this ideological level’”.
Politicians, people who are normally impersonal and steely faced, have also come out in support of O’Neill in some dramatic displays of humanity. John Lyons, Jerry Buttimer and David Norris are openly gay men but have opened up to tell of the abuse and violence they’ve received, giving the public a rare insight into the pervasiveness of the problem. He tells me of why that had such a powerful effect on people; “I think in the past because of where we were, that people in elected office felt that they had to minimalise the difficulties of being gay because they wanted to be seen as ordinary and the same as everyone else. But in doing that we forgot to remind people that there are still problems for gay people in this country and I thought it was really wonderful to see them stand up in the Dáil and just say straight out ‘this happens to me, and you around me are all discussing it at this ideological level’”.
Same-sex marriage is something that is supported by all the major parties in the Dáil, and polls show the public is also in favour of it. O’Neill however says that during the referendum, the gap is going to narrow and the airwaves will be filled with debates that, because of broadcasting regulations, have to be balanced though as he says, “in order to create this balance, they’ll have to go to the extremists to find an opposing voice.” O’Neill shares reservations that many LGBT people have about voting for what are essentially rights. He doesn’t feel that it should be put to referendum because of the huge support it has both politically and among the person on the street. “It’s so spineless of the government; they’re all in favour of same-sex marriage so I say prove it! They’ve had legal advice that says they need a referendum but they’ve also had legal advice that says they don’t need a referendum. Introduce legislation tomorrow, it’ll walk through.”
The possibility of those who disagree with same-sex marriage challenging the legislation doesn’t phase O’Neill. “Let them take the case!” he says. “It’ll take its while to get to court but by then the country will see LGBT people will have gotten married and the sky hadn’t fallen down.”
The power that can come from making personal experiences known is one that can defeat ideologues opposed to same-sex marriage according to O’Neill. Saying “this is my life” and making a point of having received the discrimination that is being debated on a chat show is something that needs to happen at this point in the marriage debate, especially when it comes to opponents of marriage equality. “If they stopped attacking me and my community, if they stopped trying to limit my access to the same rights as everybody else, if they just lived their lives and let us live our lives this would all be over and we’d never have to hear from each other again. Just get out of our lives. That’s all we want” he says. “We’re having a debate about what homophobia means but we all know what ‘jerk’ means, and they are jerks.”