RELAXING into the ritual of a soft-boiled egg on Sunday morning I was astonished, actually envious, to read in several newspapers that RTÉ paid out €85,000 to named people ostensibly libelled when called homophobic by Rory O’Neill aka the drag-artist Panti Bliss on the Saturday Night Show.
Sharing these damages are John Waters and members of the Iona Institute, including David Quinn, Dr Patricia Casey, Dr John Murray, Maria Steen and Breda O’Brien. O’Brien was quoted as saying the total figure of €85,000 was “fairly accurate”. She, Quinn and Waters are prominent newspaper columnists. Casey frequently engages in public debate.
My soft-boiled egg curdled and became cold.
The drag-artist as provocateur, if surprising here, is a seasoned player. In the Berlin of the 1920s Marlene Dietrich achieved international fame and some notoriety dressed as a man on screen. Her on-screen persona was the public side of a vast nightlife at variance with a day time on-street scene that passed for normal. But Berlin of the 1920s was an uprooted, disconnected society. People had little loyalty to its institutions or to the state. There was an increasing chasm between political power and moral authority. The drag-artists and the Kit Kat Klub famous in the musical Cabaret, based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin are probably most famous now for Lisa Minnelli’s 1972 film version.
My first thought was why Panti couldn’t have said something vile about me. I hadn’t realised that RTÉ was a cash machine for the reputationally fragrant. It is something too, to reflect that in a single lifetime homophobia has gone from being a requirement of accepted decency to the basis of an accusation of character assassination. But the difference between decency and debauchery is seldom what it seems. One day it’s a matter of mass murder and the next of monument building.
The scrapyards were once full of statues of King Billy and Queen Victoria. Then up went Padraig Pearse. There are fashions in morality. You just need to keep up with them.
1920s Berlin in the movies was a sanitised version of the underbelly of a troubled society, a place of constant crossing over and back between different realities, of day and night; of gay and straight; of liberated and constrained. It was both a short explosion of heady freedom and a profound threat to a traditionally patriarchal, militaristic and authoritarian society. It brought as much threat as relief. It was the genius of the Nazis that they could monstrously exploit the sense of unease that coincided after 1929 with an unprecedented economic crash. The rest tragically, is appalling history.
The drag-artist — the public, pouting sissy — is funny, salacious and anarchic and Ireland has form and tradition in drag. The most famous Cork man in Britain — until Roy Keane — was Danny la Rue. Both made their fortune on their well-turned legs. La Rue was the grandmother of them all: Dame Edna, Mrs Brown and Panti Bliss. Drag is satire — a commentary on its audience and wider society. It is wickedly funny because it acerbically comments on the audience it is entertaining, and excoriating.
Now, newly hoist as a hero is Panti Bliss. After the Saturday Night Show the alter ego of Rory O’Neill subsequently graced the stage of the Abbey theatre to deliver the ‘Noble Call’ — a guest soliloquy to the nightly performance of James Plunkett’s The Risen People. That speech has not been taken off the web. It has exploded on it. It is arguably the finest Irish speech on any social issue since Des O’Malley’s I stand by the republic… to the Dáil on February 20, 1985.
Panti’s Abbey address, accessible on YouTube, pivots on the refrain of “I check myself”: “I check myself to know what was it that gave me away”; “I check myself to know what gave the gay away”.
Free but constrained, almost equal but sometimes afraid, and most ashamed of all of constantly “checking myself”. Homophobia is a stigmatisation and a shame visited upon and carried by every gay man and woman who has not overcome their history, their memory, a continuing legacy in our law and a wider one in our culture. It is almost gone, apparently invisible on the surface, but remains rooted in the psyche. Self-checking is the symptom, even where overt evidence is absent, of a culture and an atmosphere where “don’t ask – don’t tell”, nod but don’t wink, is an effective requirement to ‘pass’ unimpeded in Ireland. On the main stage of the Abbey Theatre, Panti Bliss stood by the republic.
Thinking back to that Saturday Night Show that I didn’t see, but read a transcript of, I remembered another night long ago. The Late Late Show was still hosted by Gay Byrne and his guest was Alan Armsby, aka the drag artist Mr Pussy. The interview with Armsby was coy, tipping but not intruding on the salacious. There was a gay man on the Late Late Show. You have to be of an age to remember but when boundaries were closed, tight and suffocating people like that let in the light.
On Sunday afternoon 2000 people gathered outside Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre to protest against RTÉ’s decision to buckle and foreclose on a legitimate public debate. Beside Panti were Senators Ivana Bacik, Averil Power and David Norris. Norris’s preferred lifelong costume of a three-piece suit is its own form of drag of course. It was a costume that in the day, whether intended or otherwise, stated that you may by gay but you deserve to be taken seriously and treated equally. Battling illness, but battling on, he has his own story of knowing what homophobia is all about. It is not gone away nor thankfully has he.
The crossing back and forth across boundaries, of debate, of legal threats and monetary damages; what a week it has been. RTÉ behaved like the commercial organisation it swears not to be. A national broadcaster should have done differently. But the Abbey, the national theatre stepped in. We might think twice about abetting the campaign to do it in and divide the spoils. If we never succeed in getting all our national institutions working at the same time, we can see the value of having even one of them step up and step out. That is the point of theatre. A place that understands our multiple lives, our many costumes and that we “check” ourselves constantly.
Last Monday was the anniversary of de Valera’s escape from Lincoln Jail dressed in drag as a woman.
Now we need to keep a sense of purpose and a sense of humour. There are folk who think the ladder in the long fellow’s stocking was the stairway to heaven. Perhaps Panti could play the role?
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