Rory O’Neill is a Dublin-based stand-up comedian and self-described accidental activist for gay rights, who sees his duty as “to say the unsayable”.
O’Neill had been performing a comedy drag act under the name “Panti Bliss” for more than two decades when, over the course of one conversation in January 2014, he was thrust onto an international stage. While guest-starring on the Saturday night talk show of Ireland’s premier TV channel, he made reference to observable homophobia among certain Irish news figures. Pressed for names, he identified columnists John Waters and Breda O’Brien, as well as the Iona Institute, a socially conservative Catholic think tank campaigning against gay marriage, as examples of anti-gay attitudes.
RTÉ One and O’Neill were immediately threatened with legal action for alleged defamation. The TV company issued a full apology and paid six individuals €85,000 – with €40,000 allegedly going to Waters – of public money to settle the dispute. It also edited out the offending segment of the episode on its online player. The apology prompted almost a thousand complaints to the TV station and Pantigate, as the controversy came to be called, triggered countrywide debate.
The incident was brought up in both the Irish and European parliaments amid discussions of homophobia in Europe. Paul Murphy, a Socialist Party MEP for Dublin, used parliamentary privilege to denounce O’Neill’s detractors as homophobic, and to criticise RTÉ One’s attempts at appeasement.
The voices of columnists such as Waters, who called same-sex marriage a “satire of marriage”, and O’Brien, who has said that “equality must take second place to the common good”, have become more insistent as Ireland gears up for its referendum on gay marriage in May 2015. Early poll results suggest that the majority of voters will support the resolution for equal marriage rights.
Three weeks after the RTÉ One appearance, Panti appeared after a show at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin to deliver an impassioned ten-minute speech about pervasive low-level homophobia in Ireland. The speech rapidly garnered hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, and attracted the support of Stephen Fry and Madonna, among others. Columnist Fintan O’Toole called it “the most eloquent Irish speech since Daniel O’Connell [a 19th-century Irish political leader] was in his prime”.
O’Neill channelled the events of early 2014 into his new stand-up set High Heels in Low Places, which was highly praised in reviews for fusing incisive political commentary and down-to-earth, traditonal drag-act humour. During anecdote-based performances, O’Neill has spoken about the difficulties he faced coming out in the late ’80s in a country where homosexuality was still a criminal act, as well as the emotional turmoil of being diagnosed with HIV in the mid-90s.
O’Neill becomes Panti Bliss every Saturday night at his Dublin-based LGBT-friendly bar, PantiBar. This year he has published a memoir, called Woman in the Making, and has been named one of Rehab’s People of the Year. After a successful indiegogo campaign raised €50,000, director Conor Horgan has begun work on a film about Panti, The Queen of Ireland, to be released in 2015.