In January this year the drag artist Rory O’Neill drove masses around the world to their dictionaries, all striving to find the “correct” meaning of the word homophobe. While giving an interview on RTE’s Saturday Night Show, O’Neill, off the top of his head, labelled two individuals and a Catholic lobby group homophobic. For this RTE paid out approximately €85,000 to those involved to avoid a defamation suit.
O’Neill became the subject of public debate, scrutiny and widespread support after this. For the first time in the history of the State, a drag-queen became a topic of debate in the Dáil, Seanad and a subject of speeches in the European Parliament.
Reflecting on the experience, since styled as 'Panti-gate’ O’Neill explains:
“I think if I had been dressed as Panti at the time, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t have bothered suing. People dismiss drag-queens too, especially people who aren’t that familiar with them or they think they’re all exactly the same and what they are is lip-sinking to Britney Spears and drunk on Smirnoff Ice.
“People underestimate drag-queens because they don’t understand them or they think all drag-queens are that [one] they saw when they were on holidays in Lanzarote. Partly I think they did it because they underestimated me but on another level, if I had been dressed in drag more people would have just seen it as a silly joke.
In early February Panti Bliss appeared on the stage of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin to speak to the 200 or so audience members about oppression and homophobia. Rory’s friend recorded the speech and it was uploaded to Youtube as Panti's Nobel Call. Within weeks the video had gone global. Since then it has been translated into several languages and has had over 660,000 views.
“I’m probably more amazed than anybody else that anybody ever watched it. That’s a 10 minute speech about homophobia. People don’t watch anything longer than 30 seconds on Youtube, and they certainly don’t watch 10 minute speeches so I never had any expectations of that.
“The whole thing has been amazing, because it’s had quite a big impact on me. I mean I guess I feel really lucky about it because all the stuff leading up to making that speech was kind of bad but everything about that speech has actually been wonderful. I’m astounded but grateful.”
Although, that’s not to say that O’Neill felt the speech was perfect.
“I see these things that annoy me about it and even when I looked at that speech there maybe a month ago...I can see all the things I would like to fix or change about it or do slightly differently.
“And then recently...I found the notes that I had written for the speech and I could see that it’s different from the way I actually said it, but I’m also aware that if you tidy things up too much sometimes it can lose something. I just see the little fluffs but other people don’t know they’re fluffs of course because they don’t know what you meant to say.”
Last month Rory was brought back to the Saturday Night Show, this time as Bliss. The most controversial thing to be said on this occasion was that it seemed to have been “only five lawyers” since the presenter, Brendan O’Connor, last interviewed the performer.
Rory jokingly discusses this second interview and said:
“I put my foot down and said ‘No, I’m not doing it as Rory’ and of course now at this stage I could ask to come in, in a white Roles Royce and they’d say ‘sure’ because they’re just so desperate to get the gays back on board.
“We had a good discussion about how the interview would go and that they would reference [Panti-gate] at the beginning, because they would have to, but they just wanted to skip right over that...and then move on.
“At this stage I’m so used to talking about it, that I know what you can and can’t say. And also I’ve always had a good relationship with the people working on that show because they weren’t happy to be in that situation either and none of the decisions were made by them, all the decisions were made by people way above them. I’ve never had any problem with the producers of that show or the researchers or any of that, they’re all good.”
The entire Panti-gate affair has had an effect, however, on how Rory now writes material for his performances. He explains: “I’m aware but I’ve made a very conscious decision not to let it effect it. But there [are] some things...when I [am] writing [a show] or whatever that I would find myself thinking ‘Oh my god, can Panti say that?’, while I would never have asked that before and I had to make a very conscious decision to go ‘Well, yes, Panti would have said that before so she’s going to say that now’ because there are all these expectations on me now.”
O’Neill says people both within and outside the LGBTQ community now they expect him to be “like the perfect gay” following his Nobel Call speech.
“Sometimes now people take everything I say much more seriously, sometimes too seriously. Sometimes I want to talk seriously but that’s not what my nightclub act is and if you’re coming to a nightclub, hoping to get a serious speech about gay rights, well you know you’re at the wrong place.
“Now I will say that all of the shows I do, the stand-up shows and the theatre shows, you’re meant to have a good time and you’re meant to be laughing but there’s also some serious intent about why we’re laughing or what the whole point of the whole thing is. I’m an entertainer so you’re paying to be entertained.”
Like his friend and fellow accidental equality activist, Tara Flynn, O’Neill has recently released his own book. Flynn previously spoke to Campus.ie on the subject, joking that she was in competition with O’Neill. Rory adds further to the joke, saying the competition has been “a going joke” mocking that the pair are in a “book war.”
“Tara’s great. I was threatening to disrupt her book launch and she was threatening to disrupt mine and I’d take pictures of moving her book on shelves, that sort of stuff, but no it’s just totally for the craic,” Rory adds.
Rory O’Neill’s book, Woman in the Making: A Memoir, is available in all good bookstores including Easons, Dubray Books and O’Mahony’s Bookshop in Limerick.