It’s been a hell of a few weeks for Rory O’Neill, which has culminated in his drag alter ego, Panti Bliss becoming a household name. In this complete transcript of this month’s GCN interview, he talks to Brian Finnegan about what the experience of being at the centre of the storm has been like, how he cried after writing his now world-famous speech, and whom he’s reserving some very righteous anger for.
BF: Tell me about doing the Noble Call speech at the Abbey, and what it’s meant to you in the aftermath.
Panti: I liked the symbolism of it that it was going to be happening at exactly the same time as that debate on The Saturday Night Show. I went to see the play on the previous Thursday, to see the Noble Call and what it was like. It was by Richard Boyd Barrett that night. His was quite intellectual, so I thought I’d do something more personal.
Some people said to me maybe we should film this, and put it on YouTube. I thought maybe a few people might watch it. Somebody filmed it on a phone, and the next afternoon that version had 6,000 views or something. And then the people who filmed it had technical difficulties and they didn’t get it up online until 7pm, and they thought because of the phone recording they’d missed their chance. What happened over the next few days was phenomenal.
The last few weeks have been mostly stressful and annoying and aggravating, and I’ve lost sleep over it for the wrong reasons. Of course I also saw good things in it, I got lots of great support from the first second, gays coming up to the street to say I did well. But it has not been pleasant.
Since the speech went viral it has been exciting and fun, and it’s hugely validating. If it wasn’t a speech and was some other kind of clip of me going viral, it would be exciting too.
Iona might have thought they won the skirmish, that they put manners on RTÉ and got money out of RTÉ, but they totally lost the battle.
They thought, who’s this bloody queen? They didn’t really know me, and they attempted to take away my voice, because they thought I didn’t really have one, but as it turns out, I do have one, and by trying to take it away from me, they actually amplified it for me.
Many, many, many other people didn’t know who the Iona Insitute were before, and they do now, but for the wrong reasons. They thought they’d put manners on RTÉ but actually the reverse has happened. They’ve been brought into the light, and they rarely do well in the light.
They thought they’d put manners on RTÉ, but as time has gone on, RTÉ has become desperate to not seem cowed by these people. They will have less access to the airwaves now, their agenda has been exposed to the average person on the street, and people don’t like it.
Let’s go back a little bit, to before you went on The Saturday Night Show. Did you do a pre-interview, and did you know that the issue of homophobia might come up?
No. We touched on the usual topics that they always ask gays about, and drag queens about. About my family history, living with HIV, the usual things that I’ve always been asked. I knew they were going to be talking about what it is to be gay in Ireland today and about how much more open it is – the line that I say: ‘Even your granny knows where The George is’ – they love that line. The subject of homophobia appeared naturally in the conversation. I didn’t think we were going to be talking about it, and when it came up, it came up. Now, I’m not going to rehash what I said, but what I will say, of course, is that it was Brendan O’Connor’s fault. He introduced the word ‘homophobic’; he asked me a direct question, asking me to name people.
He’s a professional broadcaster. He knows the rules; he’s had the regulations drummed into him over and over again, so it’s absolutely reasonable for me, who is not a professional broadcaster, who hasn’t had the regulations drummed into me, who doesn’t know them, to answer the direct question I was asked.
Brendan O’Connor has received quite a lot or stick for it online, and I don’t think that’s quite fair. He just fucked up. He fucked up on live television and I know that Brendan and the other people who work with him on that show had zero control over how RTÉ addressed it after that. I hold no personal animosity towards Brendan. He fucked up. We all fuck up.
My problem is with RTÉ. On a personal level, the apology suggested that they felt I had done something wrong. The apology read out on The Saturday Night Show never mentioned Brendan’s or RTÉ’s responsibility; it only mentioned a guest on their programme, saying my views are not RTÉ’s. It’s like standing in a playground and pointing and saying, ‘He did it”. I take great exception to that and I expect RTÉ to eventually apologise to me for that, because I didn’t do anything wrong. It has not been proven in court that I defamed anybody, so it is not an arguable position. Regardless, the issue belongs to RTÉ and not me.
It also says to everybody else that this is an unreliable guest who went rogue, defaming people. It’s an absolutely wrong characterisation of me and what I did on that programme. I am extremely unhappy about that. I expect an apology from RTÉ, but I am not some sort of wimpy eejit who’s going to be running to my solicitor and hiding under his skirts to get that out of them. I expect RTÉ to take a reasonable, human and moral stance, like their mother would have told them to, and give me an apology.
People are saying that RTÉ got some legal advice and there was going to be a long and expensive legal battle, using license fee payers’ money to pay the court fees. Well, bollocks. First of all, this isn’t some corporation. This is the national broadcaster that we pay for with our money. The proper thing to do is allow fair, free and open debate on issues of public importance. This is an issue of public importance and they totally did not fulfill their remit in that case, in shutting me up. They aren’t McDonald’s, they’re not Coca Cola, they are a public broadcaster and they decided to have no principals, so not only are they spineless, they threw their principals aside for a few sheckles.
People go on as if RTÉ’s legal department must be some sort of hotshot crack team, but if you were a hotshot lawyer, would you be sitting in an office in RTÉ? No, you wouldn’t, and what the last few weeks have proven is that RTÉ’s lawyers are really stupid. They have turned a small incident into one giant cluster-fuck. Their job is to protect RTÉ’s reputation and integrity, and anybody standing on the sidelines can see that they have failed spectacularly in that job over the last few weeks. Clearly RTÉ’s legal department is inept and laughable. RTÉ say they had to listen to their legal advice, but you don’t have to listen to crap legal advice.
Instead of telling the legal team that they are the client, and instructing their legal team what they wanted to do, on principle, in respect of what they’re supposed to be do as a public broadcaster, they just cravenly did whatever their legal team told them to do, no matter how terrible that advice was, and they turned it into this huge mess.
Part of that legal advice was to compensate people who weren’t even named. Maybe you could argue that David Quinn, being a associated in the public mind with the Iona Institute, that he could stand in court and argue that he was defamed when I mentioned Iona – although the number of people in the country who know who he is, and what the Iona Institute was negligible until now. But, Maria Steen? Please. Who the fuck are you? My dog is more famous than you. And Dr John Murray. Seriously? Nobody knows who you are, and nobody cares. And what’s with calling him Dr John Murray? They do love that in Iona, don’t they? People think he’s a medical doctor, but he’s a doctor of theology, which is like being a doctor of Harry Potter studies.
Three of those people at least did not deserve compensation, but RTÉ, running around in a giant panic, threw money out the window at them. Those three should have been laughed out the door.
If you had one question for the Director General of RTÉ, what would it be?
Why are you so spineless? You do have a responsibility as the DG of a public body, and you need to stick to that. You have allowed some tiny fringe group to completely prescribe how a referendum campaign is going to be covered on a national level, and it is absolutely beyond the pale that you would even consider going down that path.
I understand that there are sensitivities in RTÉ after the Fr. Reynold’s disaster, but that is no excuse to act like terrified little kittens after getting a solicitor’s letter that has no strong legal basis.
I’d remind him that RTÉ is the client and the legal team works for RTÉ, so get some decent legal advice.
It’s amazing that RTÉ sent a legal letter to Broadsheet telling them to take down the clip. A first year law student wouldn’t have made that mistake. If RTÉ were looking to the future, thinking they might be standing in court and having to say we tried to get it taken down, they should have asserted copyright. But to do Iona’s job and write to other media organisations to say that somebody else might have been defamed, that’s unforgivable.
Then I’d ask him, where is my apology? If they wanted to apologise on behalf of Brendan, then fair enough, but don’t you dare throw me under the bus.
At the beginning of the letter from the Managing Director to all the staff of RTÉ it says that legal advice was unclear. However by the end of the letter, he says that legal advice was that they wouldn’t have won in front of a juror, so which was it? Clear or unclear? By the time he was on the TV news talking about it he was saying the advice was watertight.
Let’s talk about the aftermath of The Saturday Night Show, and receiving your own solicitor’s letters?
RTÉ didn’t tell me anything. A few people mentioned to me in passing that they went to watch it on the Player and couldn’t find it. I thought it was a glitch or something.
I got a call from RTÉ because they wanted to pay me the standard appearance fee and they couldn’t find my details in their computer, so they wanted my bank details again. So I gave them and I was chatting to the woman, and as an afterthought I asked about why it was gone. She said, well actually…
That was Wednesday. On the Thursday the solicitor’s letters started coming in. All the Iona ones came via email in PDF, I got David Quinn’s and Breda O’Brien’s first, and then the others. There was nothing from John Waters. But the hard copies had all gone to Pantibar, so it wasn’t until the following Monday that I was in the office and I saw the pile of letters there, and John Waters’ letter was one of them.
How did you feel when you got the letters?
At first I thought it was laughable.
Even to the people who think I’m a horrible defamer and that I was hurling the word ‘homophobia’, and who think you can’t go on television and say things like that, even if they vehemently disagree with my definition of homophobia, I think any reasonable person in the world would say that my argument was reasonable. I argued that if you publicly campaign for gay people to have fewer rights and responsiblities, that it can be interpreted as homophobia. Now, you may disagree with that, but you cannot describe my argument as unreasonable. I did not go around defaming people with some horrible hate-speech.
Let’s say a 50 year-old woman who goes to church has these ideas; she’s grown up with them, and it’s hard to shake them off. I don’t have any problem with that. That’s life. How long does it take for us gay people to come to terms with our sexuality? I have no problem with that woman, she’s entitled to her opinion. But if she takes that opinion and then decides to go out there and campaign against gay people’s rights, to write newspaper columns and go on TV, to manifest her feelings about gay people into trying to stop legislation that will give them equality, that’s an entirely different matter. That is worthy of being ridiculed and argued against and named.
So, I thought at first the letters were laughable, but then I started reading about the libel laws here, and of course the law’s an ass, and you can never guarantee any outcome. At that stage I thought RTÉ would be on my side and this would have been all over and done with by tomorrow. I thought RTÉ would have laughed at them and then there would have been none of it. If RTÉ had done that, it would have been all over and done with by now, and everyone would have come out of it smelling like roses.
So, after RTÉ apologised, it was difficult and frustrating and it remained that way until I did the Noble Call speech at the Abbey and then the tide turned.
Many people leaked to me how much the settlement was, but I couldn’t say anything and I couldn’t tell that to a journalist. I thought it would be a token, a grand each and goodbye, so when I heard how much it was, I was absolutely gobsmacked and furious, and I thought everybody else will be gobsmacked and furious too. So, I posted on Facebook, “if the figures I heard are true, then wow”. I knew my twitter and Facebook were being watched. No journalist was asking the question, but after social media got a hold of it, within a few hours it was front-page news.
And then I did the Noble Call at the Abbey and it went from there. It turned into a gay tsunami.
Tell me about the experience of doing the Noble Call.
It was a great confluence of things. If I believed in a Gay God, I’d say she was orchestrating things. There was something about it being on the National Theatre stage, with its deep connection to Irish history and the riots, and that the play was called The Risen People. During the speech, behind me there are men in their working garb. That it was called a Noble Call – the whole thing came together to create a perfect gay storm. There are people out there who think my name is Panti Noble. Maybe I should change it!
Usually you watch a 20-second clip of someone trip over a puppy, and here’s this ten-and-a-half minute speech by a drag queen. I don’t know last time I watched a ten-minute video on YouTube. It’s incredible, really. There’s something about it that connects. I’ve had thousands and thousands of emails and Facebook messages from all over the world, and not just from gay people. I’ve had messages from people with disablities who have felt the same way, a lot of women see it as a speech on their behalf, anyone who feels a little bit different. I got an email from a ginger guy who has tried to dye his hair, for God’s sake.
What was writing the actual speech like?
Well, Brian, you know I am terrible with deadlines. My general modus operandi is to do nothing. But it was percolating in the back of my mind. I was thinking about it before I went to sleep, and on the night before I wrote it, I went to bed at 2am after watching some crap TV and some ideas went through my head. I knew I’d forget them, so I wrote a few pointers into my notes on my phone, and it wasn’t about until lunchtime that I made myself sit down to write it.
When I finished it, I was reading it out loud to Penny to learn it, alone in my living room, and I started crying. What I actually thought was that the last few weeks have been tough and emotional and I haven’t allowed myself to feel that. Suddenly standing there, it all caught up with me.
I only had an hour to learn it. I was wishing I had more time. In the car on the way to the theatre, I said to my friends Philly and Ian, ‘You know, I think I’ve written a really good speech’. I was kind of joking about it, but I did think it was good, and if I could deliver it well, it would work. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to deliver it well.
In the video it looks like I was kind of nervous, but I wasn’t nervous at all. I hadn’t brought water with me on to the stage, and about three or four minutes into it, I got full-on dry-mouth. I was trying to stop my lips from sticking to my teeth, which makes me seem emotional. It was really driving me mad.
My take on it, having you speak at AMI and at Dublin Pride, it was a different kind of speech for Panti to do. It was much more deep and personal.
It’s funny, on the day before it, one of my legal advisors, who was very much into the whole thing, started to advise me. He wasn’t sure that I should do it as Panti. But I had to go to work straight afterwards, so there wasn’t a choice. He apologised the next day. He didn’t mean to be like one of those gays who say we should all wear suits; he was worried the message would get lost. I rejected that in the sense that this is what I do. I know that I can use Panti in a way and I think my instinct was totally right in this case.
I do know that when you watch the speech, there are a couple of moments when the audience laughs. The first time is when I say what is it about me at the traffic lights that they notice. They’re looking at a big drag queen and they can’t see Rory, whereas for a gay audience, Rory’s the one who’s speaking. So, it took the audience a while to get past that. But I still think I was right to do it, because firstly people pay more attention in the end, and also, the video wouldn’t have 300,000 hits a few days later if it was Rory in a shirt. It just wouldn’t.
From a personal point of view, I wanted to do it that way because one of the things that has always bothered me is these people who don’t know the gay community, aren’t comfortable around drag queens, and don’t know that drag queens can be serious or not serious. They’re not just acted roles in their entirety. Brenda Power famously said, ‘How can you take a man in a dress seriously?’ Well, go and have a look at that video, Brenda. That’s how people can take a man in a dress seriously, because what I’m wearing is of absolutely no consequence.
It’s a rejection of the idea that we must all perform to a certain ideal of gender.
Yes. As you know, that drives me mad. There’s always that letter, telling me I shouldn’t represent the gay community in drag; that I should tone it down. A letter last week that told me to ditch the name Pantibar in the lead-up the campaign for the referendum and call it Equality Bar. I didn’t get involved in this sort of thing for us to be divided into acceptable and non-acceptable groups.
So, talk to me about what’s happened with the video, and where you think we are now with the debate, not only around homophobia, but in terms of marriage equality.
I do think it’s a debate that needed to happen and that I ended up, by pure accident and a big mouth, kicking it off. While it wasn’t a pleasant experience, at the same time I’m totally glad that it happened.
I think there’s been this lazy assumption, especially by the straight community, but also in the gay community, that this is a fight that’s over. It takes something like this to really make you think that there’s still a lot to be done. Also, what I hope is going to come from it, is that the media will think harder about who they get on air to argue against gay marriage. I hope they will think harder about maybe getting nobody on to argue against it.
Pat Rabbitte said he wouldn’t use the word ‘homophobe’, that it’s a loaded word, but the essential thrust of what he was saying was on my side. But the one thing I was not fine with, and just got my back up, because this is a generally accepted thing, is that this is a legitmate debate.
That’s the feeling, everywhere. And any time any of us queers show a spark of anger about it, we’re admonished. What are you getting so angry about? We’re trying to have a reasonable debate. Well, I say, ‘fuck you’. ‘Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, and fuck you again’, and please quote me on that. It is not a legitimate subject for debate. There should be no debate about how I should be treated as a citizen.
It’s not an issue for debate, and the vast majority of people in this country decided a long time ago, that it’s no longer an issue for debate, that all citizens should be treated equally – the same way it was decided long ago that there should be no debate about whether black people should be treated equally, or that Jewish people should not be called horrible money grabbers.
Now if the The Irish Times want to go out and find some person who will argue that black people are inferior and not deserving of equal rights, they’ll find somebody to make that argument, but of course they would never do that because the editor of The Irish Times, and all the people who work there, decided long ago that it wasn’t a subject for legitmate debate.
So, grow some balls. Make the decision that it’s no longer a reasonable subject for debate. Full equality for gay people, as far as I’m concerned is a debate that’s over and done with for the vast majority of people in this country. The ones who are against it are extreme, right wing religious groups like The Iona Institute, and that’s a perfectly acceptable characterization of them, and, bizarrely, the ordinary person who isn’t a homophobe, but who just still somehow thinks it’s legitimate for us to have these debates.
So, I reserve most of my ire for editors of newspapers and producers of radio and TV shows. Just fuck you all. If you really believe in equality, just make that decision. The editor of The Irish Times should grow a pair of balls. Say it publically that you and your paper have decided that full equality for gay people is the only reasonable opinion to have anymore. That the debate has been had, and its over. In order to have the debate, the people you have to find are not reasonable, they are extremists and ideologues.
And although Enda Kenny is probably not an avid GCN reader, to him I would also say, grow some balls. You got some legal advice, Enda Kenny, and said I think we need to have a referendum. You also got some legal advice that said, I don’t think you do. And you decided, let’s be safe and have a referendum, because that will make me look better. That’s bollocks.
You say that you believe I marriage equality, well then, show it. Introduce marriage equality tomorrow. You have the votes; you’ll easily get it through the Dáil. What would happen then is that lots of gays would get married and it would take some mean-spirited, anti-gay asshole to decide to bring a constitutional case to try and prove that this is unconstitutional.
Well, let him. By the time he gets into court in a couple of years time, he’ll probably lose. But imagine, for a moment that he won, well then have the referendum. At that stage of course we will all have seen that the sky didn’t cave in, the world is still continuing, so any referendum will walk through. The decent people of Ireland won’t vote to rip people’s marriages from underneath them.
So, that’s what I say to Enda Kenny, that’s what I say to Pat Rabbitte, that’s what I say to every other TD in the Dáil. Grow a pair of balls. I hate using that sexist expression, but unfortunately the language isn’t rich enough. Bring in marriage equality tomorrow and let the mean-spirited anti-gay people take a case if they want to.
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