Being a drag queen is not a job for sissies. Just ask Rory O’Neill, the 45-year-old Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo man behind the increasingly famous drag queen Pandora Panti Bliss, or Panti.
Panti, IrishCentral can reveal, will bring her Madonna-endorsed star power to the all-inclusive St. Pat’s for All parade on Sunday, March 2 when the parade steps off at 2 p.m. on Skillman Avenue in Sunnyside, Queens. Also marching will be Mayor Bill De Blasio.
Panti first made international headlines in January when she was sued by a series of Irish public figures from the conservative Catholic Iona Institute in Dublin after she suggested that working against gay rights could perhaps be motivated by homophobia.
“It became a huge cause célèbre here,” she told the IrishCentral during a phone interview this week.
“It sparked a conversation about the kind of Ireland people want to have – and indeed thought they had. A modern, forward thinking, inclusive Ireland versus this old, inward looking Ireland that we thought we’d already jettisoned a while back.”
What happened next surprised her. After a heartfelt speech she gave on oppression and gay rights at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre went viral, Panti found herself becoming a major national figure, and not just in Ireland, thanks to the power of YouTube and the Internet.
Referring to herself in the third person she said, “People rallied around Panti as an avatar for their hopes for what Ireland might become. That’s why straight people and young people started walking around wearing ‘I’m on team Panti’ t-shirts and all that silly stuff. As the thing rumbled on and became something discussed in parliament and on news shows I couldn’t believe it,” Panti recalled.
But how did she get invited to New York this week, where the decades-old ban on gay groups marching under their own banners in the city’s annual Fifth Avenue march has rumbled on for years without resolution?
“I believe that the parade organizers Brendan Fay and Kathleen Walsh D’Arcy of St. Pat’s for All thought that Panti might fit well symbolically with what the parade is doing. So I believe that actor, producer and director George Heslin got the ball rolling with the approach to sponsors.”
It’s hard not to see the parade – and Panti’s participation – as a sort of action replay of the face-down between progressive, inclusive forces in the Irish community here and what some would call the more exclusionary, conservative forces that shape the Fifth Avenue parade.
“I think that many Irish people thought that we already had a more inclusive Ireland, so the Iona controversy came as a surprise. I would call it the last sting of a dying wasp,” Panti says.
“The most heartening thing about the skirmish here was that the progressive forces absolutely won. In the beginning it looked like they didn’t but in the end they absolutely did.”
For an Irish person living in Dublin as Panti does, the parade situation in New York looks very odd because the freewheeling one in Dublin is much more like the one in Sunnyside than the one in Manhattan, O’Neill says.
“Panti has marched in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin. Irish gay groups were marching in it 10 years ago. In Dublin it’s colorful and full of feathers and people with glitter on them dressed as crazy animals and even drag queens on paper mache mountains. It’s a Mardi Gras celebration of Irishness,” Panti says.
“For us the parade is just an excuse to have a party outdoors regardless of the weather. All parades are gay. If it isn’t a gay parade it’s just an organized march in traffic lanes.”
In contrast to the differing parade styles there is also a difference in tone between the church leaders in Dublin and New York, O’Neill says. The Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Diarmuid Martin, said recently, “Anybody who doesn’t show love towards gay and lesbian people is insulting God. We all belong to one another and there is no way we can build up a society in which people are excluded or insulted. God never created anybody that he doesn’t love.”
But Martin’s words contrast strongly with the more conservative “love the sinner, hate the sin” rhetoric of New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who many suggest is himself the real bar to Irish LGBT groups participating in the parade.
O’Neill says he’s ready no matter what comes Panti’s way On Sunday.
“I think drag is a kind of armor that toughens you up,” he says. “Drag queens are aware of our power.
We are aware of it because it upsets some people so much.
“The act of putting on a dress can make some heads explode, but it can also be powerful in a positive way. My speech at the Abbey was an example of that. The drag amplified the message I wanted to make.”
This weekend Panti will also bring something absolutely new to the Queens parade, real celebrity star power. Some have called her Ireland’s answer to Pussy Riot.
To her fans – and there are many in both the Irish gay and straight communities – her presence can only bring good things to the parade.
Although still technically under threat of legal action, it looks certain that the Iona Institute members who sued O’Neill will let the case peter out.
“When you have members of the European Parliament standing up to calling them a homophobe, when ministers in our own parliament lay into them, it seems like its all gone too far and turned into a giant PR disaster. I’m very hopeful that the legal threats have disappeared,” he says.
“The defamation laws in Ireland are so convoluted and bizarre that in many cases people do just pay out because it’s cheaper than going through a court case. I think that in many cases in the past RTE (the national broadcaster) have quietly paid out and it’s all just gone away. I think they thought that would happen with me.
“It was the power of the drag they underestimated. They underestimated this bloody drag queen. They misread the mood of the public. They didn’t understand that I did have a voice they couldn’t take away as easily as they thought. I think all of those things bit them in the ass.”
Now O’Neill says the choice for the Irish community here, once and for all, is which vision of Irishness is closest to your own?
“I’m really looking forward to it. The Ireland that these parades should reflect is the modern inclusive one we have been trying to build here at home. It’s disappointing that something that purports to be Irish, on such a huge platform, in fact reflects an Ireland that’s long gone.”