The world - or at least the Western world - is a very different place now in July to what it was in May. In the space of around six weeks, Ireland became the first State where same-sex marriage was endorsed by the public through a referendum - kickstarting calls in Germany and Australia for the same; while the United States voted to approve gay marriage following a Supreme Court decision.
Rory O’Neill, aka Panti Bliss, the drag queen and entertainer, who by virtue of the ‘Panti-gate’ controversy became a spokesperson for gay rights in Ireland and a pivotal figure in the drive for marriage equality, was in Canada when he heard that gay marriage had become legal in south of the border.
“I was in Toronto for the Pride festival when we heard,” Rory tells me during our Monday morning interview. “It was great news, but in Canada they’ve had gay marriage for about 10 years, so it would have been even more fun to have been in New York. I had just been to New York to stage my show High Heels In Low Places, and eveybody knew the Supreme Court decision was coming. They were waiting for it.”
That trip to New York was the first time Rory had performed in the States as Panti and his show was well received, earning a review in The New York Times. “It was a great review,” he says. “It just couldn’t have gone better.”
It all seems to mark how Rory’s life has changed irrevocably, from popular performer in the Dublin gay scene to a much loved household name, who has also earned the status of “national treasure”, following Panti’s extraordinary “check myself” speech at the Abbey Theatre in 2014.
“Some amazing things have happened,” he says. “I look at all these opportunities, but in other ways, it didn’t when I was 22. I was 44 when ‘Panti-gate’ happened. If it had happened when I was 22 it would have been different, but this time next year people might have forgotten who I am. I’m still doing the same thing, just that now more people are interested. For a long time I’ve been well known in the gay community, it’s just that now the audience has expanded. It has made things easier. It makes selling the tickets easier, and there are more venues where the show can go to.”
Yet accolades such as “icon” and “national treasure”, though deserved, run the risk of Panti Bliss becoming ‘establishment’, surely something Panti was never meant to be? “Part of the reason I got into drag is it’s outsider and underground, but drag queens are suited to being iconic,” says Rory, “but I think the world has changed rather than me. Panti is still naughty, irreverent, a bit smutty. I think the establishment has expanded a little to accommodate someone like me. It’s a constant tension. Can I be a transgressive drag queen and be on the cover of VIP? I have to make a conscious decision not to change.”
Something that will keep Rory from ever becoming establishment is that fact that drag queens were the original spearheads of the gay rights movement - something Rory is very aware and of which he is very proud.
“There can be tension in the gay community as to how you should present yourself,” says Rory. “People can be ‘How can you be a drag queen drawing attention to yourself and everyone else’ and why do you have to be so extreme, well feck that! It was the drag queens who started the riot at the Stonewall Inn in New York. It was the people who didn’t look like regular people are the people we have to thank for gay rights. They weren’t hidden. We would have got nowhere if it was up to the people who were hiding it all the time and staying underground!”
‘There are still issues though’
Yet Rory is very resistant to, and reluctant to accept the accolades bestowed upon him after the Yes victory in the Marriage Equality referendum. “I accept that I opened up a conversation, and I’m proud of that,” he says, “but it’s easy for people to over-estimate my contribution. I’m visible, but I know many people who have dedicated years of their lives to this, who campaigned around the clock, holding meetings at six in the morning, taking calls, making sure canvassers were on the streets. They are the people who should get the praise.”
Some six weeks on from the Marriage Equality Referendum, does Rory feel homophobia is firmly on the run or could the Yes victory be described as a major step in what is still very much an incomplete process?
“Definitely the latter,” says Rory. “I don’t think the vote changed Ireland, rather it confirmed a change that had happened already. The immediate effect of the result is that you now see more gay people feeling able to walk down the street holding hands. It was also important that it was a referendum. You can’t quibble with it. That was powerful for the gay community. It was a shift in how we feel about our place in Ireland. The majority have spoken and are OK with gay people. However the real effect of the result will only be seen in about 10 years time when teenagers then, who will have grown up with same-sex marriage, see their uncle getting married to his boyfriend, just like anybody else.
“There are still issues though,” Rory cautions, “such as Section 37, which affects the LGBT community in terms of working in institutions with a religious ethos. It’s very difficult to be a gay teacher in Ireland, but there is legislation coming through on that. There are also issues for transgender people, but again there is legislation on the way. A major issue is young people and bullying, and also, the Irish gay community must become more international and not forget about other countries where gay people do not have rights. Recently in Turkey, a secular country, a Pride parade in Istanbul was met with water cannons and rubber bullets from police.”
Life’s a ‘drag’
Panti’s show, High Heels In Low Places is a mixture of stand-up comedy, the story of Panti’s life, her views on attitudes to the LGBT community, and a powerful plea for tolerance and the freedom to be yourself. Although Panti is obviously a man in drag, a drag queen should always be referred to as ‘She’. What is the etiquette and gender politics around this?
“It’s different for everybody,” says Rory. “The rule of thumb is ‘call it as you see it’. From my point of view I don’t care if I’m called Rory or Panti, everyone knows who I am, but if I’ve spent two hours getting myself ready and dressed as Panti and someone shots on the street “Howya Rory!”, its really annoying as the illusion is ruined! It is funny though, how when it is tied up with sexuality, people get confused. Nobody gets confused over Mrs Brown. When Brendan O’Carroll is in drag, Mrs Brown is always referred to as ‘She’. If the performer is gay, people think they might insult you by calling you she or that you might be transgender.”
So what was it about that attracted Rory to drag performance? “I was attracted to it because it was club based, and underground.” he says. “People think it’s because you want to be a woman but it’s noting to do with that. It’s about making yourself more visible, intentionally, it’s about using the tools women have, that men don’t, to be more visual. It’s also anti-social and transgressive in nature. It makes people question things like gender roles and how people are supposed to behave. It’s freeing in that way.”
Panti Bliss’s show High Heels In Low Places comes to the Town Hall Theatre this Saturday at 8pm. For tickets contact the Town Hall on 0-91 - 569777 or www.tht.ie