Panti Bliss has been known for years on the drag circuit in Ireland, as fabulous and foul-mouthed, outrageous and outspoken a drag queen as you could wish for. But suddenly, Panti—the alter ego of Rory O'Neill—has to watch what she says: she’s become an activist, the go-to spokesperson on gay rights, and Ireland’s newest “national fucking treasure” (to use her own favoured term). How did such a transformation occur?
The rollercoaster of the last 18 months forms the basis for Panti’s show High Heels in Low Places. It all began when O’Neill spoke out about the homophobia of certain Irish media commentators on a Saturday night variety show on RTE, Ireland’s national television broadcaster, in 2014. The individuals threatened to sue, RTE quickly paid out and pulled the segment off their website; cries of censorship rang out across social media.
Panti gave an elegant, beautifully argued 10-minute speech in response, about homophobia, gay marriage and oppression, which went viral. Soon Pantigate—as it was dubbed—was big news, and being debated by Irish politicians.
All this was marvellous, but it’s left Panti as “a sort of establishment figure – an odd place for a drag queen to be!” she acknowledges. “I spent 25 years doing my thing in clubs, because it was fun and bold and wonderful. But to go through this bizarre set of circumstances and end up part of the establishment is a funny thing to happen.” Even her crowd has changed: where it used to be “gays and hipsters”, she recently had a 76-year-old in the front row.
While she enjoys being an “accidental activist”, there’s also a pressure: “Everyone expects me to say the right thing, they expect me to be inspiring, they expect me to have the ‘definitive gay view’. I don’t. No-one does. It’s just my opinion. But it is a responsibility, in a way.”
Still, as her show explores, it’s certainly been an inspiring time to be involved in LGBTQI activism in Ireland: last year, the referendum over same-sex marriage returned a positive vote. That didn’t surprise Panti – but she says she it did feel it turned into a bigger question.
“We have quite a lot of referendums in Ireland and the question being asked always changes, really – you’ve just had a taste of that in the UK! So what it really turned into was: 'Are you okay with the queers?' It felt like a big, personal question.”
And the answer, resoundingly, was yes. Turn-out was high, and now, in Ireland, “it feels like a done deal,” says Panti. “The gay community feel confident in a way they weren’t before.” No wonder, then, that they’ve crowned a drag queen their new national treasure.