Emma Dwan O’Reilly interviewed Rory O’Neill, the man behind queer folk hero, Dublin institution, global phenomenon and Irish national treasure, Panti Bliss ahead of the screening of the film ‘Queen of Ireland’ by the UN at the British Museum to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights.
Your Noble Call speech at the Abbey was a real game changer in the campaign for marriage equality in Ireland. It made everyone check themselves – can you describe how you wrote this incredible speech and what was it like presenting it?
Well, at the time I was in trouble and it felt, up until the speech, that everything was arranged against me and I think it was also the day that RTE had announced that they were paying money so I felt very abandoned in that whole thing at the time and my own lawyer that actually said to me that one of the days, had basically looked at what I own, all my assets and said in Ireland there are only two kinds of people that can afford to fight a defamation case, really rich people and people who have nothing and we were still in the recession at the time and he looked at Pantibar’s accounts and everything and he was like, you are lucky you’ve nothing. So I was prepared to go on but I understood very clearly from the beginning that the only thing that I has was the possibility of making a lot of noise. That if I could make a lot of noise and get people on my side then maybe I could get out of this sticky situation. The Abbey asked me to do the speech a few days before and I almost said no because there was a lot going on. I didn’t see any point in doing it and there was a lot going on, so I felt like it was just an extra chore but I did it because the Abbey have always been very good to me and I’d had my show there, so I did it, I agreed to do it. I think the night before I had to write the bloody thing and I thought, you know what, I’ll just write about what’s on my mind and so I just let them have it. But I had no expectations of it because I thought that no one would see it apart from the people who were in the auditorium that night, so I didn’t think it was going to do anything to help me. I just had no expectation, I mean I make a lot of speeches, I never shut up, so I just thought this was another one. But I was really pissed off at the time and I think anger is a good thing, it really gives you something to say. So, I wrote it the night before, I didn’t have time to learn it or anything. What I usually do with all these kinds of speeches I kind of learn the through line and I try and remember little parts word perfectly but most of it, I’m feeling my way through, so I had to bullet points. But of course I’m very used to that, standing up on a stage and talking to people that’s what I do all the time, that’s what I do for a living, so I was very comfortable doing it. So the only thing, for me, that was on my mind about it, my lawyer was there, he didn’t think I should do it, no the only thing that was on my mind was, I knew the people in the auditorium had not come to see me, they had come to see the play and I was a thing at the end and so I am always very aware in those situations that if you’ve walked into a gay bar in drag and start doing your thing, there’s no explanation needed, everybody knows what a drag queen is, there’s no problems but if you walk into a situation like that, where that audience is not used to drag queens, some of them might never have seen one in the flesh before, they’d come to see an old Irish play so I knew that the first couple of minutes they wouldn’t hear anything that I said they’d just be looking at my hair and working our were my tits real and how was my figure done and I totally a bloke and they’d be doing all that stuff that they do and so the first two minutes I don’t remember what I said now but if you go back and you look, it’s just nonsense the first couple of minutes, some silly jokes or something and then when I think they’ve had enough time to figure out that the hair is a wig and it is a man, then I start with what I really want to say. And so, I had no expectation of it, it just happened of course that Conor, who was making the documentary, he was like, this might be a useful thing and he had put the camera there. It was late and I went straight to work but by the time I got home from work at the bar that night a few hours later, a crappy, shitty phone version from the middle of the auditorium that somebody had taken that was missing the beginning and the end and the sound was terrible, it had wracked up nine thousand views in the space of a couple of hours. I was like, that’s weird and so I mentioned it to Conor and he was just like - right! He had no intention of getting it put together immediately, he had filmed it and thought that was the end of it but when he saw that he was like right and he got straight in to the edit and put the basic thing that you know together and he had that up by the next morning or something or the next day and it just immediately went bananas.
What was it like being visible and coming out into the public eye during the marriage equality campaign in Ireland?
Well, that’s a funny one because, obviously in the small Ireland I was already quite well known and everything so that aspect of it wasn’t new to me or anything. And there’s the bar that everyone knows is the drag queens’ bar. But what was different was that after that Abbey thing and everything was that people started to take me so fucking seriously all the time and now everything I say now people take so seriously and that can be a bit awkward if you are a drag queen. It wasn’t just me, I think every gay person during the referendum felt, you know, the kind of the tension or the stress of it all, I don’t think that I had a well known face made it any different really. I certainly feel that. Of course on the internet people will say mean things to you and was there more of that during the referendum, of course there was, but actually in other times when there was less of it I would feel more like oh, that’s all just directed at me, whereas during the referendum all that was directed at every queer person. I actually felt comradery during that whole period, like we were all in this together, I didn’t take anything personally.
This year at Pride in London our theme was ‘Pride Matters’ and we used it to prompt reflection on why Pride still matters today. Would you say Pride matters and why?
Yeah, you know every single Pride around the world has this constant never ending discussion and tension and argument between protest and party and all that and I just don’t think it’s necessary, it can be both at the same time. Pride started out as a demonstration and a protest and I strongly believe it should have all those elements to it still because there are still lots of things to complain about and just because, for example, in Ireland we have legislatively we have full equality and all and even though there are homophobes here like everywhere else, generally we’re safe and all that but we’re a tiny part of the world’s gay population and you don’t have to go far to place where lesbian’s are being beaten to death in the street. So, I think it’s more important for us than ever to use our lucky gifts and all of that and not to just give up because we have it relatively easy. But the other thing I always think too is every minority has to constantly, never endingly agitate a little because if you don’t the majority kind of forget you’re there. So just because things are relatively good it doesn’t mean you can sit back because if you sit back things will go backwards, I mean if you look at America for example. So I think it’s always necessary to do that. And the other thing is, there’s a lot of great reasons to have queer people and one of them is, we’re good at these things and there’s a lot of other groups in society that can learn from the things that we did and how we did them and we should be agitating on behalf of them too. I remember during the abortion referendum thing people would say “why the fuck do you care” and I would say it’s not like gay men live in a bubble on another planet, we live in the world and we have neighbours and friends and sisters and we have human empathy. Of course we care about things that don’t directly affect us, I’m not black but I care about racism, is that weird and so on. We’ve learned a lot, our community, because what we did, achieved is really remarkable, it’s incredible. Like, literally 30 years ago people wouldn’t have cared if we’d been run over in the street and we affected incredible change over 30 years and that’s no small feat. And here in Ireland for example you could really see a great deal between the two referendums. The abortion referendum certainly uses a lot of the same techniques that had been developed during the gay campaign. So, of course I think there’s still a need for Pride, there are lots of reason for Pride and also we get old and we forget, it’s still hard to be 16 and coming out and every queer remembers their first Pride and how great it felt and how exciting it was to be around thousands and thousands and thousands of other queers and that’s all good. It’s good to march through the streets every now and then and say we exist and we’re here and it’s our city too. Pride matters for sure.
This year marks 25 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Ireland and last year marks 50 years since the same in England and Wales. Anniversaries like this help us remember that we as a community have come a long way and there is indeed every need to celebrate that, but there is still a lot of work to be done - Northern Ireland is an example of an area where change is still waiting to happen. How do you think people can help to make change and equality in Northern Ireland a reality?
I think there’s two things, most importantly is to support local organisations that are on the ground doing the stuff there. Even here, I see the local Northern Irish groups looking for attention or a bit of money or support and people gloss over and I’m thinking - no no no no. Of course a lot of things are a drain on our attention but it’s a bizarre, ridiculous and stupid situation. I want to say to you “but it can’t last long” because it’s so ridiculous that a couple can be married in Dublin and get the ferry to Holyhead and still be married and then get the train up to London for the day and they are still married and then go up to Glasgow and they are still married and then they go over to Belfast and they’re not married – it’s so stupid. And of course all the polls show that the vast majority of Northern Irish people are totally fine with it and in favour of it, so it’s not that the people are against it, it’s just that the DUP are… pieces of shit.. and you can quote me on that!! And they are using this petition of concern so cynically, something that was designed as part of the peace process to be used to bring peace and all that to Northern Ireland and they are using it so cynically for something that it was never intended to be used for, for social engineering essentially is what they are using it for. So, yes, despicable. Despicable that a tiny rump of a group of people can hold the rest of the country back. So, it’s frustrating and annoying and I’ve been saying for three years “oh, It won’t last long, it can’t last long” but it’s lasted three years already. It’s insane but anyway. Support local organisations for starters and talk about it because I think people are always shocked when they hear about it and I’m like how did you not know that? But lots of people didn’t know that.
You have spoken openly about living with HIV and how your diagnosis was a turning point but that life didn’t stop there – can you talk a little about life after your diagnosis? Has much changed?
Well the first thing I always say to people, people always want you to have, to tell them something that you have learned, something dramatic – they expect you to say “to live everyday as if it is your last” and “smell the flowers” and all that and I’m always like – nooo, because you get a diagnosis like that and that you are going to die and I was given five years is what they gave me at the time and you think this is going to change my life and the next day you still have to buy fucking bin bags, you know what I mean, you still run out of toilet paper and you can’t just stop all of that shit, you still have to do it and so I actually found that almost nothing changed in that way – I didn’t learn anything but did life change, yeah, it totally did. It changed because in the beginning everyone thought you were going to die and there’s all the practicalities of that, some of which still linger on like I never got a pension because I didn’t think I would need one, all of that stuff, boring stuff. And then of course for years it was like that and then of course in the last ten years it’s been incredible in what they have achieved, so dramatic the change. The clinic I used to go to for years was full of sick and dying people and it was grim and awful and horrible and you’d see people one week and the next week you’d see them and then you’d never see them again. It was just grimness and that’s all gone. Now I go to the clinic and it’s absolutely nothing, it’s like going to the Chrysiasis clinic – it’s no different to any other clinic and that’s remarkable, incredible. All change. Nobody dies any more.
Do you think there is still work to be done on the de-stigmatisation of HIV and education?
Oh my God there is so much there! When I was saying it’s all change and nobody dies anymore - they don’t die in nice Western countries where you can get your free medication but they are still dropping like flies in lots of other parts of the world – it’s not an over thing. And oh my God the stigma thing is massive and huge and it’s not just something that’s annoying on a personal basis to people dealing with HIV, it’s what stops people going to get tested because people don’t want to know the answer and they still freak out about it and the amount of people that still - gay twenty somethings that should know everything - the ignorance is so incredible still and all that shaming and weird stigma that stops people getting tested makes people not want to talk about it. Just a few years ago, after the treatments had so dramatically improved a friend of ours who knew lots of people living with HIV, he got very sick, was taken into hospital and he died and it turned out that he had been diagnosed like 18 months beforehand. He was so freaked out about it he never went to the clinic. He never took medication, he never did anything. And the clinic staff, they were devastated when he died because it shouldn’t have happened and it’d been so long since anyone died. It just shows you how powerful the fucking stigma of these things still is. He had no reason to think anything, he should have gone gotten his tablets and he’d be fine but he didn’t. It was really shocking and awful, young, handsome, nice guy. So all that bullshit around it and I think especially in Ireland, it sickens me, we have such a great history of shaming people for their sexual behaviours – from Magdalene laundries to.. – it drives me mad. And it’s one thing for a woman in Mullingar, a grandmother, to not know much about HIV and how you catch things and the state of play about medication and all that but what the fuck, a twenty-eight year old gay boys should know everything about it and they don’t, it’s amazing.
Education, education, education is the answer of course, yes it is but I always say too that there’s one other - there’s a better way to do it, in the sense that, the most powerful thing that any individual queer person did to advance gay rights in the last forty years was to come out. It was coming out that changed the world because it’s really easy to hold prejudices and all that about people that you don’t know but it’s much more difficult to hold weird prejudices and have weird ideas about a group of people when one of them is your brother or your cousin or your neighbour or teaching your kids in school or whatever it is – so that’s what changed the world. The more people that came out the more all that weirdness and nonsense about gay people or stigma disappeared and it’s the same with HIV. Everybody wanders around thinking that HIV isn’t in their lives, that they don’t know anybody living with HIV but they do, they know a few people but those people don’t feel comfortable or able to be totally open about living with HIV and so they don’t tell anybody and they have good reason not to tell them but the hard truth of it is there would be no stigma is every single person living with HIV stood up tomorrow and was open about it. And I know they can’t all do that and it’s easy for me to say living in my gay bubble in Dublin and that would be a very much harder thing to do if you’re working in a factory in Tullamore and you’re on the local football team or whatever but that is the truth of it. We could pretty much eliminate the stigma overnight if everybody came out but they don’t feel they can. Strongly I would say to people, like me, who can be open about it, I think we need to be. I think it’s really important that anyone who can be open about it should be and the more of us who do make it easy for the people who are working in the factory in Mullingar to come out too about it.
Looking to the future, what's next for yourself and Panti?
I’m basically just continuing on with all the things I usually do – I write my theatre show once a year, we do a little tours and all that and then there’s other things that come along and I’m in the show RIOT that is still touring, which is really super fun. And then I guess most excitingly, we’re writing a Panti TV show with Sky, that’s been on the go for a year now, over a year now maybe and so that is now coming to the phase where it starts to actually happen - so that’s very exciting. It’s a comedy drama, hour-long episodes with American companies and Sky involved and it’s set in a fictional version of Pantibar. So hopefully that will take up a lot of my time next year.
Anything you’d like to add or that I’ve missed?
Just make sure you mention how pretty I am!