Although not well-known outside of of Ireland, revered Dublin drag performer Panti Bliss, real name Rory O'Neill, joined the actors on stage following a performance of James Plunkett's The Risen People at the Abbey Theatre last Saturday. In a speech lasting over ten minutes, Panti Bliss proceeded to carve out a place for herself on the world stage as one of the most eloquent advocates for LGBT dignity and equality of our time.
What led to this moment deserves some explaining. Dan Savage does an excellent job of giving the back story, but I'll try to encapsulate it as well.
Appearing on the RTE Irish program The Saturday Night Show Bliss was prompted by host Brendan O’Connor to address charges of homophobia within Irish media by giving specific examples. Bliss obliged, citing two columnists from the Irish Times as well as the deeply conservative Catholic group, The Iona Institute.
O’Neill gave an unequivocal answer, name-checking Irish Times columnists John Waters and Breda O’Brien, as well as Catholic think-tank The Iona Institute, as those he believed worthy of that description. Many audience members may have been heard cheering and clapping their approval, but those mentioned were significantly less enthused and began legal action against RTÉ and O’Neill on the grounds of defamation as they weren’t homophobic.
Even though Waters previously wrote ""This is really a kind of satire on marriage which is being conducted by the gay lobby. It’s not that they want to get married; they want to destroy the institution of marriage because they’re envious of it
", and O'Brien has said "Equality must take second place to the common good
", they along with anti-equality group The Iona Institute immediately took umbrage at being called out for being bigots and filed a defamation suit. In response, the RTE caved and settled, awarding them $114,000.
Perhaps thinking they had won, it was actually Panti Bliss who had the last word during her speech last Saturday. Touching, impassioned, unapologetic and at all times filled with a perfect-pitch sense of humor, this speech will surely be remembered among the all time greats in our global struggle for equality. It has already gone viral on the LGBT blogs and, even though it is a bit lengthy, it is worth every second of your time.
HT to Joe. My. God and John Aravosis.
Full transcript below.
Hello. My name is Panti and for the benefit of the visually impaired or the incredibly naïve, I am a drag queen, a performer, and an accidental and occasional gay rights activist.
And as you may have already gathered, I am also painfully middle-class. My father was a country vet, I went to a nice school, and afterwards to that most middle-class of institutions – art college. And although this may surprise some of you, I have always managed to find gainful employment in my chosen field – gender discombobulation.
So the grinding, abject poverty so powerfully displayed in tonight’s performance is something I can thankfully say I have no experience of.
But oppression is something I can relate to. Oh, I’m not comparing my experience to Dublin workers of 1913, but I do know what it feels like to be put in your place.
Have you ever been standing at a pedestrian crossing when a car drives by and in it are a bunch of lads, and they lean out the window and they shout “Fag!” and throw a milk carton at you?
Now it doesn’t really hurt. It’s just a wet carton and anyway they’re right – I am a fag. But it feels oppressive.
When it really does hurt, is afterwards. Afterwards I wonder and worry and obsess over what was it about me, what was it they saw in me? What was it that gave me away? And I hate myself for wondering that. It feels oppressive and the next time I’m at a pedestrian crossing I check myself to see what is it about me that “gives the gay away” and I check myself to make sure I’m not doing it this time.
Have any of you ever come home in the evening and turned on the television and there is a panel of people – nice people, respectable people, smart people, the kind of people who make good neighbourly neighbours and write for newspapers. And they are having a reasoned debate about you. About what kind of a person you are, about whether you are capable of being a good parent, about whether you want to destroy marriage, about whether you are safe around children, about whether God herself thinks you are an abomination, about whether in fact you are “intrinsically disordered”. And even the nice TV presenter lady who you feel like you know thinks it’s perfectly ok that they are all having this reasonable debate about who you are and what rights you “deserve”.
And that feels oppressive.
Have you ever been on a crowded train with your gay friend and a small part of you is cringing because he is being SO gay and you find yourself trying to compensate by butching up or nudging the conversation onto “straighter” territory? This is you who have spent 35 years trying to be the best gay possible and yet still a small part of you is embarrassed by his gayness.
And I hate myself for that. And that feels oppressive. And when I’m standing at the pedestrian lights I am checking myself.
Have you ever gone into your favourite neighbourhood café with the paper that you buy every day, and you open it up and inside is a 500-word opinion written by a nice middle-class woman, the kind of woman who probably gives to charity, the kind of woman that you would be happy to leave your children with. And she is arguing so reasonably about whether you should be treated less than everybody else, arguing that you should be given fewer rights than everybody else. And when the woman at the next table gets up and excuses herself to squeeze by you with a smile you wonder, “Does she think that about me too?”
And that feels oppressive. And you go outside and you stand at the pedestrian crossing and you check yourself and I hate myself for that.
Have you ever turned on the computer and seen videos of people just like you in far away countries, and countries not far away at all, being beaten and imprisoned and tortured and murdered because they are just like you?
And that feels oppressive.
Three weeks ago I was on the television and I said that I believed that people who actively campaign for gay people to be treated less or differently are, in my gay opinion, homophobic. Some people, people who actively campaign for gay people to be treated less under the law took great exception at this characterisation and threatened legal action against me and RTÉ. RTÉ, in its wisdom, decided incredibly quickly to hand over a huge sum of money to make it go away. I haven’t been so lucky.
And for the last three weeks I have been lectured by heterosexual people about what homophobia is and who should be allowed identify it. Straight people – ministers, senators, lawyers, journalists – have lined up to tell me what homophobia is and what I am allowed to feel oppressed by. People who have never experienced homophobia in their lives, people who have never checked themselves at a pedestrian crossing, have told me that unless I am being thrown in prison or herded onto a cattle train, then it is not homophobia.
And that feels oppressive.
So now Irish gay people find ourselves in a ludicrous situation where not only are we not allowed to say publicly what we feel oppressed by, we are not even allowed to think it because our definition has been disallowed by our betters.
And for the last three weeks I have been denounced from the floor of parliament to newspaper columns to the seething morass of internet commentary for “hate speech” because I dared to use the word “homophobia”. And a jumped-up queer like me should know that the word “homophobia” is no longer available to gay people. Which is a spectacular and neat Orwellian trick because now it turns out that gay people are not the victims of homophobia – homophobes are.
But I want to say that it is not true. I don’t hate you.
I do, it is true, believe that almost all of you are probably homophobes. But I’m a homophobe. It would be incredible if we weren’t. To grow up in a society that is overwhelmingly homophobic and to escape unscathed would be miraculous. So I don’t hate you because you are homophobic. I actually admire you. I admire you because most of you are only a bit homophobic. Which all things considered is pretty good going.
But I do sometimes hate myself. I hate myself because I f*cking check myself while standing at pedestrian crossings. And sometimes I hate you for doing that to me.
But not right now. Right now, I like you all very much for giving me a few moments of your time. And I thank you for it.