Silencing Rory O’Neill (the self-professed “gender discombobulist” better known as Panti) should have been easy. Being gay and a drag queen he was already social outlier, which for generations in Ireland has implied powerless and resourceless.
If Ireland’s conservative establishment has a complacent inner circle (and it does) then a six foot two man in a wig and make-up could be described as living on the last stop before the sign that reads Here Be Dragons.
But it’s an indication of just how completely the ground has shifted at home that Ireland’s establishment wrong-footed themselves so completely over Panti before their campaign to combat marriage equality had even started.
Famously, before the marriage referendum was even announced O’Neill was asked on RTE, Ireland’s national broadcaster, to name some prominent figures he felt were battling against LGBT equality in the nation. He was candid in his response.
For his troubles he quickly received four attorneys letters from Breda O'Brien, David Quinn, Patricia Casey, and John Murray, all of the conservative Catholic political action committee the Iona Institute.
By serving papers Iona removed O’Neill’s agency and privileged their own, copper-fastening the impression that most Irish LGBT people already had of the group, that it's larger aim was to silence them all and that its ambition is to legislate marriage equality out of existence. They were not interested in a David and Goliath showdown with a drag queen, their real goal seemed to be to end all public discussion of the topic completely.
What followed next would probably have followed script even five years ago. O’Neill was given a very public black eye which would, it was presumably hoped, give one by proxy to the whole of progressive Ireland.
He was sued into silence for daring to call out the people he believed were oppressing him and those who followed in his foolhardy footsteps were sent an unmistakable message to keep their heads below the parapet.
Almost immediately Ireland’s national broadcaster, paid for by public licensing fees, paid out an eye popping sum for daring to broadcast the offending interview and the rest of the country’s media ran for the escape routes, complicit in their silence and afraid to even discuss the developments for fear of punishing legal writs.
Meanwhile the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) also came in for strong criticism during the referendum for fostering – some critics say – a censorious atmosphere that prevented debate moderators from correcting bluntly the false claims made by campaigners for fear of being accused of journalistic bias. Because of their sometimes high handed commitment to a debatable form of “balance” absurdity often flourished, critics wrote.
In America I noticed all this furor and wrote a piece on IrishCentral in support of O’Neill’s original contentions that the gay community were in fact regularly being attacked in the press.
I did this because I thought it was insufferable that conservative commentators were silencing criticism of themselves through solicitor’s letters whilst offering startlingly anti-gay criticisms of their own.
Protected by American free speech laws I was free to say here what others feared to say at home and in a small way my own comments helped to break the spell that had left O’Neill in a cold and unsupported place for daring to tell the truth to power.
Meanwhile the Iona Institute members announced via their homepage that they had successfully secured an apology from Ireland's national broadcaster RTE. That early skirmish must have reassured them that they held the winning hand.
It’s hard to convey to people born outside of Ireland just how galvanizing the so-called Pantigate affair turned out to be for the nation’s youth. Ireland’s conservative establishment had hand picked a figure they thought insubstantial, someone the believed the majority would lampoon; simultaneously they tried to make “her” both a figure of fun and a symbol of moral decay.
Interestingly, it didn’t work. Public revulsion over the seemingly endless years of church abuse scandals, including indentured servitude in Magdalene laundries and a legacy of forced adoption in Mother and Baby homes, has mortally wounded its moral authority. The refusal to acknowledge this, or to amend it's own rhetoric, is a major conservative blind spot.
Where once social conservatives had sounded sincere in their views, more often now they sound high handed and even cruel. Certainly their arguments are not landing like they used to, but right to the end they failed to notice what others had understood from the start of the campaign.
The little town lands of Ireland may still have the same quaint names but the map has been comprehensively redrawn over a decade of banking collapse, austerity, water charges and an out of control church. Nevertheless the No side still thought they knew where they lived and they spoke to it, but the Yes side understood the nation was in a new moment and made their case masterfully.
If you ever doubted the importance of drag queens as revolutionary figureheads I think that debate is now settled. O'Neill was born the year of the Stonewall riots and has lived to see and embody the changes his community has won internationally and nationally.
By silencing him momentarily, socially conservative Ireland thought it was just making its latest stand, but the voting tallies on May 23 made clear it is one day closer to its last.