Rory O'Neill battles HIV stigma with powerful history-making Dancing with the Stars performance

As the first man to dance with a male partner on Ireland's Dancing with the Stars, Rory O'Neill delivered a powerful message on HIV stigma.

Rory O'Neill performing on Dancing with the Stars against HIV stigma with his pro partner Denys Samson. They are wearing black clothes and dancing in blue lights.
Image: Via Instagram - @pantibliss

Rory O’Neill delivered a powerful message against HIV stigma with his latest performance on Dancing with the Stars dedicated to the doctor who treated him.

As part of the ‘Dedicated Dance’ week, on February 12, all the remaining couples on the show performed dances to pay tribute to people who have had a profound impact on their lives. Ditching his drag persona Panti Bliss for the first time since he started on the show, the activist took the floor as Rory O’Neill and danced with his pro partner Denys Samson, in an emotional performance that left judges and viewers in awe.

The couple chose to perform an intense and moving Paso Doble to the legendary Pet Shop Boys’ song ‘It’s a Sin’. O’Neill dedicated last week’s performance on Dancing with the Stars to Professor Fiona Mulcahy, one of the first doctors to treat him when he was first informed about his HIV positive status in 1996.

Speaking on the show, he explained that it was important to him to appear as Rory for this dance. “I was diagnosed in 1996. She told me that I probably could live 5-10 years if I was lucky. I was only 27 at the time. I knew people already who had died from AIDS-related illnesses.” he said.

“Today, HIV is an easily managed condition. It is serious this week what we’re doing,” he continued. “Performing out of drag shows that in a way. It’s important to realise you can be a 54-year-old living with HIV and still dancing live on TV every Sunday and making a fool of yourself.”

“27 years ago I didn’t expect to be here today and I certainly didn’t expect to be on RTE One,” the activist said. “I’m trying to combat the stigma that still clings to HIV. This seemed like a very good opportunity to speak to the public at large about it.”

Their performance scored them the first two tens on the show and a total of 29 points from the judges, who praised the two dancers for their emotional routine. “Such a powerful performance. Such a powerful message. Never underestimate the amount of people you are helping right now with being so honest and open,” one of them said.

“I don’t ever recall seeing two men dancing Paso Doble side by side. You did a really, really good job,” commented another one. “The bravery that you showed gives an honesty to the performance that we all appreciated totally. I think it’s so apt that tonight it’s Rory who performed, because it’s Rory who had to go through this fight.”

Speaking to RTE ahead of last week’s episode, O’Neill said: “I also wanted to do this because there is still a lot of weird stigma around HIV. And I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that the average person on the street doesn’t understand that HIV is a pretty easily managed condition nowadays.”

“I take one pill a day in the morning, and I expect to live as long and as healthily as anyone else. I can’t pass HIV onto anyone else,” he explained. “There’s still a lot of shame around it and it’s hard to be open about it. I live in a very gay world, and I think it’s important for me to be open about it so we can make room for other people.”

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