Rory O’Neill, well known as drag queen and gay rights activist Panti Bliss, told David Hennessy that although we are living in a time of greater acceptance there is also a resurgence of homophobia.
Panti Bliss- Ireland’s most famous drag queen- returns to Soho Theatre this month with her show, If These Wigs Could Talk which has already enjoyed a sell out run at the Abbey in Dublin.
It is six years since Panti- real name Rory O’Neill- was last at Soho Theatre with her critically acclaimed High Heels in Low Places.
in 2015 Panti Bliss played a major role in the successful referendum campaign for Marriage Equality in Ireland.
Panti Bliss became an international sensation in 2014 when a clip of her speaking movingly about living in a homophobic society from the Abbey Stage went viral.
Her ten minute oration, which became known as The Noble Call, was described as “the most eloquent Irish speech” in almost 200 years by Fintan O’Toole and gained support of Dan Savage, RuPaul, Graham Norton, Stephen Fry, Madonna and many more.
She has also frequently hosted Dublin Pride.
Her memoir Woman In The Making was a bestseller in Ireland.
She has also been the subject of the acclaimed documentary The Queen Of Ireland which broke box office records in Ireland and picked up awards at festivals around the world.
Panti made history this year becoming the first drag queen on RTE’s Dancing with the Stars.
If These Wigs Could Talk finds Panti taking a moment to question what her purpose and place in this changing world is.
Rory told The Irish World: “It’s very personal.
“I’m 54, I’ve been a drag queen all of my adult life.
“I never expected when I got into it that it would be my actual job.
“For 30 years I thought, ‘One day I’m going to have to get a real job’.
“I never expected to be doing drag at this stage of my life.
“The world has changed dramatically since I first got into drag.
“I got into drag because it was stupid and fun and was also very underground and punk and transgressive and confronting.
“The world has changed.
“Being a queer person in the world is very different now than it was in the 1980s.
“Drag has changed beyond all recognition.
“It’s very mainstream now.
“And so at 54 I have to wonder, ‘What’s my purpose anymore? Do we need a 54-year-old drag queen? Does anybody want a 54-year-old drag queen?’
“That’s the central theme of this show.
“But I explore that by some serious stuff and personal stuff but also by a lot of stupid, funny stories.
“Sometimes I worry that that description of the show sounds quite heavy or serious, it’s not.
“It does have serious moments but it’s still a stupid drag show.”
The show is also personal as it sees Rory reflecting on his own aging father.
“My dad is 88 and he has dementia, he’s very frail.
“He’s definitely not going to be with us much longer and whether that is tomorrow or six months, nobody knows.
“But my father was a very vibrant, active man.
“He was a Mayo mountain vet my whole life and to see him the way he is now, it kind of underscores all the things that I’m feeling about myself.
“It comes to us all, getting older.
“My dad’s also, in a way, representative of Ireland and their attitudes to queer people.
“When he was 20, it never crossed his mind and then later in life, he ended up with two gay sons and one of them is a drag queen.
“His father was a chief superintendent in the guards and he grew up in a small country town.
“All this could not be further from his experience but like so many Irish people turned out to be, he’s absolutely fine with it. It’s never bothered him.
“He might not have always understood it but as long as we were happy, he didn’t care. He’s taken all this stuff in his stride.”
The TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race has brought drag to mainstream culture.
However, Rory points out we are also living in a time of growing intolerance.
However despite the progress that appeared to have been made, Rory feels a resurgence of homophobia has taken us back and not just to pre- referendum times but the 1980s.
“We’re in a really weird time.
“Drag is more mainstream, more popular than it ever has been.
“Queerness is just much more available to people now.
“When I first got into drag, there was no Graham Norton on the television.
“There was very few out queer people in the world at all.
“I have a very strong memory of seeing Boy George on Top of the Pops the very first time.
“The next day in school, it was the only thing we were all talking about but the conversation was all about whether he was a man or a woman.
“The idea that he was just a flaming queen never entered our heads in Ballinrobe, Co Mayo.
“We just had no frame of reference for that.
“So all of that has changed so dramatically.
“But I do think it’s also an interesting time because along with this massive acceptance on one level, now we’re in this weird period where there’s this huge pushback against all things queer, but in particular trans people and drag queens.
“Last summer I was down in Westport at Mayo’ s first ever gay Pride and there was a small but very vocal and angry group of fascists essentially calling us paedophiles and trying to stop us.
“That’s a new phenomenon.
“In the old Pride parade in Dublin there was always that one little old lady who had the sign with the religious thing on it, but she wasn’t actually abusing us, and accusing us of being paedophiles or anything.
“So all of this is new.
“The UK is an absolute binfire at the moment for trans people and in America this whole anti-queer, anti-trans, anti-drag stuff is insane.
“There is legislation in lots of states now banning drag performances so we’re just in this weird spot at the moment where drag has never been more popular and queer people have never been more accepted but on the other hand, we’re experiencing a never seen before push back against drag and trans people- or certainly not seen in a very, very long time, and it’s very organized this time. And push back against queer people that we haven’t seen in a very long time either.
“In lots of ways it reminds me very much of when I was coming out in the 1980s, the kind of stuff that at the time was printed about gays, especially around aids.
“It all seems very familiar to me.
“And actually, that is part of the show where I come to a late realisation things are actually very familiar and we do need older drag queens who have been through all this before.
“So we’re just in a very odd, weird, dangerous time, I think.
“And it’s very hard from this perspective to know how it’s all going to unfold.”
Does it feel like a step backwards after all the euphoria of the marriage equality referendum? “100%.
“We were so proud back in 2015, first country in the world to introduce marriage equality through a popular vote and all of that stuff.
“If you’d asked me in winter 2015, or 2016, I would have been tempted to think, ‘Oh, this feels almost like a finished project, we’re almost there’.
“Fast forward a few years.
“It feels like everything has become a fight again, that we’re fighting old battles that are not even the arguments or discussions that everybody had running up to marriage equality, but we’ve gone back 30 years to argue about whether queer people are a danger to children again.
“Not a single day goes by that I’m not called a paedophile on the internet now.
“Five years ago, nobody would ever have called me a paedophile.
“It’s just so regressive.
“It came as a bit of a shock after thinking, ‘Wow, this is all nearly finished’, to suddenly find yourself sometimes feeling like you’re back in the mid 80s.”
Panti Bliss has spoken about gay couples not being able to un- self consciously hold hands in public.
While he says there has been progress here, it is still a case of taking some of those steps back.
“You definitely see queer couples holding hands in a way that you didn’t ten years ago but you see less of that than you did two years ago, because of all of this new nonsense which is beginning to spill out into the real world off the internet, and that is scary.
“There’s definitely a going backwards feel at the moment which is depressing and horrible.
“Out and about people are generally much more open minded than the internet would have you believe. But we are actually beginning to see more and more of this stuff become real.”
Rory made history this year becoming the first drag queen on RTE’s Dancing with the Stars.
“We really are in such a weird time where two things are true at the same time, where the country is much more progressive, is much more accepting, it is much easier for queer people, much better for queer people than it was.
“It’s absolutely true.
“Evidence of that, though small, is the fact that a 54-year-old drag queen who is living with HIV, was dancing in the light entertainment family show every Sunday in people’s living rooms. And nobody really cares or bats an eyelid.
“So things are much better.
“Queer people are living full, colourful lives, and we have a gay Taoiseach at the moment.
“All of that stuff is so much better.
“But I guess that’s also why I find it so shocking that there is a push to go backwards.
“And what’s on the top of my mind at the moment is ‘F**k that. I’m not going back’.”
Rory and his dance partner Denys Simon dedicated a dance to one of the doctors who treated Rory when he was first diagnosed with HIV in 1995.
“There’s still a massive amount of ignorance and stigma around living with HIV.
“I think younger people really don’t know anything about it, they just have a vaguely scary feeling about it. And a lot of older people, their idea of what it means to live with HIV is stuck in 1990, or something.
“And the reality is HIV is now an easily treated and managed condition.
“The advances that the medical community has made have just been wild.
“There was never like an ‘aha’ moment where somebody said, ‘We discovered a cure’.
“And I think that is actually part of the problem of it. A lot of people don’t understand the incredible advances in treatment.
“What happened was they discovered a way to start treating it, and they just made that better and better and better and better and better and better and better slowly over the years.
“And so they very slowly inched away from not being able to do anything about it, and every single person dying to a situation where they’ve slowly made it that it’s just a manageable condition.
“I take one pill a day.
“There was never a big splashy headline about a cure and I think that’s why so many people still think that it’s the end of the world if you are diagnosed with HIV, when it’s absolutely not.
“If you were going to have to choose living with HIV or diabetes or something, I would absolutely take HIV because it’s much harder to manage diabetes.
“Obviously: Safe sex, kids, you don’t want to get HIV like you don’t want to get anything else.
“But if you do, it is not the end of the world. You’ll be fine.
“It’s annoying, but you’ll be fine.”
Rory was sad to see the news that another famous drag queen Paul O’Grady, who came to prominence as the character Lily Savage, died in March.
“Paul O’Grady was a drag queen from my own drag tradition.
“And of course, he was basically Irish.
“I have this kind of slightly weird interest/ theory about Ireland and drag.
“If you look back at it, so many of the major drag stars have really been Irish.
“What is that about?
“Danny la Rue, born and bred in Cork, obviously moved to London when he was very young, but very much a Cork man.
“You know, he went to mass every single Sunday in Soho square.
“His mother was staunchly Irish and staunchly Catholic.
“And then you had Lily Savage who may have been born on the island of Great Britain but in every other way was essentially Irish.
“And there’s also Mrs. Brown who isn’t exactly drag in the same way that I think of myself as drag but you could argue is currently the most successful one on British television.
“It’s just interesting to me the British queens tend to be virtually Irish.
“So what’s that about?”
We ask one big question before we let Rory go.
Having discussed what we have- worrying times amid a resurgence of homophobia and something of a return to dark times- does he have hope/ faith that we will get through this weird and difficult time?
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I have faith because there are horrible examples in the past when humanity went to sh*t.
“But I do have a lot of hope that things will work out.
“I also do believe in people’s sort of core real humanity.
“Ireland is very small and I think one of the reasons we changed so quickly when the time came was that it’s now impossible to live in Ireland and not know some queer people.
“It doesn’t matter what tiny village you live in.
“Everybody has a gay cousin or a lesbian neighbour, or the woman in the post office.
“And Ireland is like that. It’s very small and it’s very hard for people to believe crazy nonsense about queer people when you know lots of queer people.
“If somebody on the internet tells you that they’re all paedophiles, you think, ‘My cousin Paul and my neighbour Mary are lovely people’, you know?
“So I think Ireland’s smallness insulates a little bit from some of the worst of that nonsense. Not all of it, but a lot of it.
“At the same time, it’s probably still very easy to live in Arkansas and not know any queer people.
“In much bigger places, I think it’s much easier to live in these entirely insulated separated bubbles, and not know any queer people and read on the internet that they’re all crazy monsters who eat children and then believe that because you don’t know anyone to disabuse you of that notion.
“I hope that that sort of smallness and interconnection will save Ireland from some of the worst of this nonsense.
“I do believe that most people are normal, empathetic humans who want to get on with everybody else.
“I do have hope that we’ll get through all of this.
“I do have hope that all this stupid panic about trans people just simply existing will just pass and we’ll get through it.
“Do I have faith? No.
“And because I don’t have faith, I think it’s important that we are aware of this stuff, don’t ignore it and let it fester and grow.
“I think you do have to push back against it.
“But yes, I do have a lot of hope that in the end, people will come back to their senses.”
Soho Theatre present ThisIsPopBaby & Abbey Theatre’s If These Wigs Could Talk Friday 26 May – Saturday 10 June.
For more information, click here.