Drag Queen’s Speech Fuels Irish Gay Rights Debate
DUBLIN - Ireland’s top drag queen, Miss Panti Bliss, has driven a stiletto heel through this nation’s long-running debate on gay rights. Panti has riled up conservative Catholics and won global admirers in a social media tour de force that is dominating Irish water-cooler talk.
How and why has Panti - a.k.a. 45-year-old Rory O’Neill - become a YouTube sensation in a dozen languages, thanks to a single, celebrated speech on anti-gay prejudice in Ireland? AP explains.
O’Neill has been Ireland’s best-known drag performer for more than a decade, leading Dublin’s annual Gay Pride parades and the Alternative Miss Ireland pageant, performing in nightclubs and, since 2007, in his own pub named the Pantibar. It’s one of of only four gay bars in Dublin - but that’s four more than existed a generation ago in this predominantly Catholic land.
Homosexuality was outlawed in Ireland until 1993, but attitudes have softened in the two decades since, as Catholic authority crumbled under the weight of child abuse scandals. Civil partnerships were legalized in 2010, and a national referendum to permit gay marriage looms next year. All political parties back the move.
On Jan. 11, O’Neill went on a late-night Saturday talk show on Ireland’s state-owned RTE network, and stumbled into a freedom-of-speech furore.
When asked for his assessment of anti-gay attitudes in Ireland, O’Neill said a few Irish newspaper columnists were "horrible and mean about gays." The host asked him to name names. He identified Irish Times columnists John Waters and Breda O’Brien and a small Catholic lobbying group called the Iona Institute.
O’Neill says he thought he was stating the obvious, since all are leading voices against gay marriage. But Waters, O’Brien and four Iona officials threatened to sue RTE for defamation, arguing they had been unfairly branded as haters of homosexuals.
RTE quickly issued an apology and paid 85,000 euros ($115,000) in damages, mostly to Waters, a board member of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland overseeing RTE. It said fighting the lawsuit would have cost far more.
Waters, who has described gays’ demand for marriage rights as "a deliberate sabotage of the culture" motivated by envy, resigned his post shortly before the settlement became public knowledge.
Public reaction was swift and critical. Twitter exploded with messages of support for O’Neill under the hashtag TeamPanti.