When Irish drag queen superstar Panti Bliss gave an electrifying speech at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre last year it heralded a new era of extraordinary social change in Ireland. Her words were immediately applauded by some of the most famous people on the planet like Madonna, Boy George and Elton John. This week she’s in New York to perform High Heels in Low Places, her acclaimed one-woman show at the Irish Arts Center. CAHIR O’DOHERTY catches up with a bona fide Irish icon.
It's the first rule of gay life. Never pick a fight with a drag queen – you will lose.
If only the leaders of the Iona Institute and the Catholic Church had bothered to heed that warning they and the reactionary no campaign in Ireland’s recent marriage referendum could have saved themselves a lot of time, money and effort.
Because of Panti’s activism, coupled with the campaign run by the Yes Equality group (which had high numbers of straight and gay volunteers) and the commitment of the Irish people themselves to draw a line under the homophobic past, Ireland has become the first country in the world to vote in favor of marriage equality for LGBT couples.
“People kept congratulating me, which I find weird because there were thousands of people who worked harder than me on it,” Panti (real name Rory O’Neill, 46) tells the Irish Voice.
“My friend the Dublin drag queen Shirley Temple Bar has the best response to it. Whenever people congratulate her she says, ‘Apology accepted.’”
If you ever doubted the importance of drag queens as revolutionary figureheads that debate was settled on May 22 in Ireland. No one is more surprised than Panti herself, who will perform her show High Heels in Low Places at the Irish Center this week until Saturday, June 13 (it’s sold out, but there’s a wait list).
“It just finally occurred to me. Oh, I can actually get married here at home,” she explains. “You work so hard for something and then when it comes there’s a sort of slow realization that, wow, we did that. In Ireland now there’s no difference between the gays and anybody else. That’s still a sort of gob smacking sort of thought, isn’t it?”
The recent photographs of O’Neill in full drag walking arm in arm with his beaming mother and father to the makeshift marquee stage in his hometown of Ballinrobe in Co. Mayo to perform his solo show were a revelation of just how far the country has come.
“I’m 46 so I was growing up there in the 1970s and early ‘80s and my story is very typical. I was never bullied or anything like that but I always felt out of place and uncomfortable. I never felt like I really belonged there because I didn’t believe there was anyone else there like me.”
When he reached his twenties and thirties he still felt that way about his small west of Ireland town, he says.
“I would go home at Christmas and my sisters would all be dragging me out to the pub and there’d be a party and I’d always feel outside of it, on display as the local gay, and although it was technically my home, it wasn’t,” Panti recalls.
“Outside of my parents’ garden walls I just didn’t think there was a place for me in a town like that. And the truth is there actually wasn’t. It wasn’t just my imagination. I felt like an alien and the town thought of me as an alien.”
But last week he went home to Ballinrobe seven days after the referendum result (in which his home county voted yes) dressed as the gayest thing on the planet.
“I am a giant cartoon drag queen and I am wandering up the 150 meters from my parents’ house to the stage. I got made up at the dressing table that my mother used to get made up at, which is already weird enough, then I walk to the marquee that has been specially set up in the yard of a tire company, and there are rainbow flags above the handball alley, and the whole town is decked out in rainbow flags and people have made homemade signs in the shop windows that that read Good Luck Panti, Welcome Home!”
The marquee was packed, and the audience loved the show.
“It was just surreal and nerve wracking and lovely and amazing,” Panti gushes. “It felt a little overwhelming to be honest. I was still on a high from the week before. I almost felt guilty about my attitude to the place in the past, but the honest truth is that was the case 20 years ago.”
It’s not that Ireland’s changed so massively. It’s just that it’s made room for everybody else, Panti says.
“Even in my own parents’ parish the priest didn’t read out the bishop’s letter condemning a yes vote. So there was resistance to the old message.”
Everywhere O’Neill has gone for the last five years the cameras of filmmaker Conor Horgan have followed him, filming his forthcoming documentary feature The Queen of Ireland.
“The filming part just ended, and it couldn’t have worked out better from his point of view. It has the law cases, the marriage referendum, the result day, even the performance in my home town,” O’Neill says.
Talking about riding the zeitgeist. Horgan was there to chart an Irish social revolution from its decidedly shaky beginnings to its triumphant ending. His cameras were running on May 23, the day that Panti and Ireland’s LGBT community experienced something they had never experienced before – a total victory.
“Everyone was in such an ebullient mood across the whole city center,” recalls O’Neill. “I didn’t realize that people were watching the broadcast live on TV as we walked back to Pantibar [the gay bar Panti owns in Dublin]. Even the weather was perfect.”
What can New York audiences expect from the show?
“A lot of laughs but there’s some darkness too. If I get a tear out of the audience on occasion I’ll take that,” O’Neill says.
He’s philosophical about the losing side of the referendum.
“Most people who voted no didn’t do so because they’re homophobes, but because they may feel like the world is moving so fast and they can’t keep up, or because all of these fears and worries were dragged up during the campaign that were unreal and unfounded,” O’Neill says.
“I think since the yes vote they’re already beginning to realize those fears were wrong. It would hard to look at the celebrations of that day and not conclude they really meant a lot to people. Ten years from now I think they’ll be glad that it went the way it did.”
But there is a small core of voters who voted no for all the worst reasons, O’Neill says.
“We see them online every day and they’re on there now. But now they’re saying horrible things about transgender people like Caitlyn Jenner,” he says.
“They’ve moved past bashing gays to bashing trans people. They are trapped in this weird world where they are absolutely obsessed with how other people live their lives. Religious dogma drives some; sheer animosity drives others. They’re never going to change I think.”
But in time for 2016, the aspiration that all the children of the nation should be cherished equally is finally one step closer to reality, O’Neill says.
“I absolutely believe in my heart and soul that if all the people who had signed the Proclamation in 1916 had been alive today they would have been yes voters. Gay Irish people feel more at home and more comfortable and valued. The country made a powerful statement,” O’Neill says.
Prepare now to hear some powerful statements of O’Neill’s own when High Heels in Low Places hits town this week. For tickets call 212 757-3318.