KILLER heels with a killer message. Who would have envisaged that the most eloquent, and heard, political figure of post bail-out Ireland would be Rory O’Neill, also known as the drag artist, Miss Panti Bliss?
Nature fills a vacuum. So Enda Kenny & Co were spouting their usual, meaningless sound bites about having a “national conversation,” and empty rhetoric about “creating a new Ireland”, and became such a drag.
Then, drag queen Panti sparked a real, vibrant debate about whether Irish values of equality and acceptance live up to the hype, not just for gay and lesbian people, but for everyone who feels shut out.
In the remarks that sparked the controversy, and threats of legal action against RTÉ, Mr O’Neill opined that everyone, including him, is, to some degree, homophobic and racist, due to the relentless conditioning of society.
It is up to all of us to try and check that fear of the other that lurks within.
A firestorm ensued and, dressed as Panti, the performer and civil rights activist hit back in an Abbey Theatre speech that has attracted worldwide attention and 300,000 hits on YouTube.
“Straight people have lined up to tell me what homophobia is, and people who have never experienced homophobia in their lives have told me that unless I am being thrown into prison, or herded onto a cattle truck, then it is not homophobia — and that feels oppressive.
“And, so now, Irish gay people, we find ourselves in this ludicrous situation, where we are not only not allowed to say publicly what we feel oppressed by, we are not even allowed to think it, because the very definition — our definition — has been disallowed by our betters, and I have been denounced for using ‘hate speech’, because I dared to use the word ‘homophobia’, and a jumped-up little queer like me should know the word homophobia is no longer available to gay people, which is a spectacular and neat Orwellian trick, because now it turns out gay people are not the victims of homophobia, homophobes are the victims of homophobia,” Panti said.
The question that sparked all this is: Are people who oppose extending marriage rights to same-sex couples homophobic — as in having some fear or dislike of gay people — at least on some level?
What description would make them feel more comfortable — equality deniers? Were the people who opposed the abolition of laws banning marriage between black and white people in the US until the late 1960s, on some level, racist?
I would say, definitely, yes.
They felt their own, all-white marriages would somehow be lessened, or demeaned, by the extension of civil marriage to mixed-race couples.
But the debate has now taken on a life of its own, as Pantigate has exploded way beyond the issue of marriage equality and has thrown up major questions regarding censorship and freedom of speech.
If you disagree with this column’s view, and write into the newspaper denouncing me (as has happened) as a bigoted anti-Catholic lefty idiot, does that mean I should sue you for your description? I would say ‘absolutely not’, as, though perhaps unpleasant and inaccurate, that is all part of the wider cut-and-thrust of debate in an open society and media.
While definition cannot remain entirely with the group at the sharp end of intolerance or inequality, their perception of it is the key factor in judging its scale and impact.
I, as a white male, simply do not have the frame of reference, or experience, to haughtily tell a female colleague that Ireland is not really a sexist society anymore, or to tell the foreign-born person who cleans the Oireachtas press-gallery offices that it is no longer a racist society, because a few laws have been brought in to try and make things better.
So, neither does a straight person have the life experience to tell Panti, or any other gay or lesbian person, to stop bleating on about alleged homophobia: “Because, sure, didn’t we finally stop making you all criminals in the 1990s — show some gratitude and shut the hell up.”
One person who has gone from law-breaker to law-maker in the two decades since homosexuality was decriminalised is Fine Gael TD Jerry Buttimer.
And it is a symbol of the lingering homophobia in our society that an ‘openly’ gay TD is news.
After all, nobody ever referred to Mr Kenny as ‘openly blond’ — it is just accepted as part of how God made him.
Mr Buttimer was outraged by comments in the Seanad by Jim Walsh, in which the Fianna Fáiler asked if the upper house could “deal with the dangerous, vicious elements in the gay ideological movement”?
In a measured and well-judged Dáil speech, Mr Buttimer expressed what it was like to be on the receiving end of homophobia.
“I speak not just as a gay person, but as a member of society who wants to be treated equally.
“I have been beaten, spat on, chased, harassed and mocked because of who I am. I have spent most of my life struggling and am finally at a place in my own country, which I love, to be accepted. In a tolerant, respectful debate, I will not allow people who spout hatred and intolerance to go unchecked.”
It is clearly going to be a very long, and ugly, road to next year’s marriage equality referendum.
But even if that significant milestone is achieved, there are still many more battles — to create an equal, inclusive society — still to be won.
Despite promises from the Labour Party, we still live in a country where, under Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act 1998, you can be refused jobs or promotion, as a teacher or doctor, from religious-run institutions, simply because you are gay or lesbian.
Or, as the law puts it, because you are deemed to “undermine the religious ethos of the institution”.
Many staff at schools and hospitals run by religious organisations live in real fear of being ‘exposed’ as gay. When, launching an ‘anti-homophobic bullying in schools’ campaign, this column asked Education Minister Ruairi Quinn how a 14-year-old was supposed to know it was wrong to call a classmate ‘queer’ or ‘faggot’ when they also knew their teacher’s career could be blocked just for being gay, Mr Quinn did not have an answer, because the glaring, homophobic contradiction had clearly never occurred to him.
So, what next? Panti for president?
Funny how it took a drag act to put manners on so many sad acts in our public life.
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.