Panti Bliss

Ireland's leading drag queen delivers the Amnesty International Pride Lecture at The MAC in Belfast

It was in February 2014 that Panti Bliss went global. Ireland’s leading drag queen, and its most recognisable gay rights activist, stepped out onto the stage of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre earlier this year and delivered a commentary on marriage equality that journalist Fintan O’Toole described as 'the most eloquent Irish speech' in almost 200 years.

The captured video of the appearance became a viral sensation, garnering 200,000 views within two days, and its orator was suddenly the toast of the world’s media, from America to Australia.

On the back of this newfound fame, Panti – the alter-ego of County Mayo’s Rory O’Neill – has continued to perform. There is now even a book on the way. Her crucial role as a champion of the LGBTI cause, however, stands alongside these more glamorous pursuits.

In actuality, Panti’s words were delivered subsequent to another public appearance. A few weeks earlier, on RTÉ’s The Saturday Night Show, Panti had suggested to host Brendan O’Connor that the actions of certain prominent public figures might, to a reasonable observer at least, come across as homophobic.

The named subjects, outraged that their opposition to gay rights should be labelled in this way, issued solicitors letters to O’Neill, demanding fulsome public apologies for the alleged defamatory comments. Entertaining no intention of saying sorry, O’Neill donned his wig and, at the venue’s invitation, headed to the Abbey. The rest is history.

Now it's Belfast's turn to receive the Panti treatment. The Dublin-based performer and club owner heads north for a whirlwind tour of media appearances in the city, culminating, rather spectacularly, at The MAC, where she delivers the annual Pride lecture for Amnesty International.

‘Love is a Human Right’ goes Amnesty’s simple slogan and, after a brief introduction from the organisation’s UK director, Kate Allen, Panti strides on stage to underline that message, complete with sparkling stilettos, rainbow-streaked dress and a blonde wig of quite epic proportions.

The choice of attire draws an instantly admiring applause. ‘I usually get that sort of reaction,’ she grins, devilishly, ‘and rightly so. I look f*cking amazing.’ Such archly confident statements aside, and the occasional barbs notwithstanding, the high camp of Panti’s act ends with the outlandish outfit. What she brings to the audience, instead, is a considered and insightful deconstruction of the anti-equality agenda.

Urbane and wickedly amusing, O’Neill and his creation are just the figures needed to undermine the insidious bigotry inherent to much of the opposition they face, even if there exists some modest reluctance to serve as a totem for the issue of marriage equality. ‘I don’t deserve the respect,’ Panti suggests, of the plaudits now coming her way; this is ‘accidental activism.’

As becomes clear, she is at her best when taking on the myriad straw men of those on the other side of the gay rights debate. Picking apart their querulous objections, point by point – without, admittedly, the distraction of anyone to answer back – Panti's acid tongue pricks the preposterous pomposity of acting in a homophobic manner without wishing to be weighed down by the label.

‘The Iona “Institute” – I’m going to put that in inverted commas,’ she winks. ‘Nobody is learning anything there except, maybe, how to dress badly. Or, any time lesbians kiss an angel dies.’

Lines like these receive uproarious laughs aplenty from the capacity crowd of entirely friendly punters but the truly notable element is Panti’s quiet disdain for anyone who claims goodness born of religion while, at the same time, displaying next no common sense. ‘They want to separate the “sin” from the sinner,’ she points out, ‘but it simply doesn’t work when the “sin” is an intrinsic part of who you are.”

As to the certitude placed by her opponents in the strict meaning of words – homophobia might, conceivably, be defined as an irrational fear of homosexuality – Panti has a wicked riposte. ‘They want to single out the word “phobia”. They say: “I’m not afraid of you. I don’t have an irrational fear.” And I would agree with that. I don’t think that Edwin Poots passes by a hairdressers and shudders… Though, he might.’

In fairness, Panti is keen to draw a distinction between the relatively innocent prejudice stemming from a lack of exposure to gay people (she introduces the fictional ‘Susan from Banbridge’ by way of an easy, abstract example) and individuals who actively seek to curb the rights of citizens paying the same taxes, and accepting the same responsibilities, as the rest of us.

Eventually she comes to crux of the problem: sex and gender. ‘Gender discombobulation is at the root of so much homophobia,’ says Panti. ‘It's about the sex act. Homophobes don’t like gay sex and that’s what drives a lot of it.’

The dehumanising effect is clear and dangerous, she concludes. ‘Those who are against the LGBTI community reduce you to that single sex act. To them you are not actually people… None of that applies to you. You’re not a real person. You’re a sex act.’ Whatever they’re selling, Panti isn’t buying. ‘We are more than just a sex act.’

Visit The MAC website for information on upcoming events.