SHAUN CONNOLLY: Buttimer and Panti drown out empty rhetoric in homophobia debate

Drag artist Miss Panti’s impassioned speech about the vulnerability of gay people in society has exposed shallowness of the same-sex marriage debate

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.

PANTI'S NOBLE CALL AT THE ABBEY THEATRE - FULL TRANSCRIPT

Hello. My name is Panti and for the benefit of the visually impaired or the incredibly naïve, I am a drag queen, a performer, and an accidental and occasional gay rights activist.

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.

So the grinding, abject poverty so powerfully displayed in tonight's performance is something I can thankfully say I have no experience of.

But oppression is something I can relate to. Oh, I'm not comparing my experience to Dublin workers of 1913, but I do know what it feels like to be put in your place.

Have you ever been standing at a pedestrian crossing when a car drives by and in it are a bunch of lads, and they lean out the window and they shout "Fag!" and throw a milk carton at you?

Now it doesn't really hurt. It's just a wet carton and anyway they're right – I am a fag. But it feels oppressive.

When it really does hurt, is afterwards. Afterwards I wonder and worry and obsess over what was it about me, what was it they saw in me? What was it that gave me away? And I hate myself for wondering that. It feels oppressive and the next time I'm at a pedestrian crossing I check myself to see what is it about me that "gives the gay away" and I check myself to make sure I'm not doing it this time.

Have any of you ever come home in the evening and turned on the television and there is a panel of people - nice people, respectable people, smart people, the kind of people who make good neighbourly neighbours and write for newspapers. And they are having a reasoned debate about you. About what kind of a person you are, about whether you are capable of being a good parent, about whether you want to destroy marriage, about whether you are safe around children, about whether God herself thinks you are an abomination, about whether in fact you are "intrinsically disordered". And even the nice TV presenter lady who you feel like you know thinks it's perfectly ok that they are all having this reasonable debate about who you are and what rights you "deserve".

And that feels oppressive.

Have you ever been on a crowded train with your gay friend and a small part of you is cringing because he is being SO gay and you find yourself trying to compensate by butching up or nudging the conversation onto "straighter" territory? This is you who have spent 35 years trying to be the best gay possible and yet still a small part of you is embarrassed by his gayness.

And I hate myself for that. And that feels oppressive. And when I'm standing at the pedestrian lights I am checking myself.

Have you ever gone into your favourite neighbourhood café with the paper that you buy every day, and you open it up and inside is a 500-word opinion written by a nice middle-class woman, the kind of woman who probably gives to charity, the kind of woman that you would be happy to leave your children with. And she is arguing so reasonably about whether you should be treated less than everybody else, arguing that you should be given fewer rights than everybody else. And when the woman at the next table gets up and excuses herself to squeeze by you with a smile you wonder, "Does she think that about me too?"

And that feels oppressive. And you go outside and you stand at the pedestrian crossing and you check yourself and I hate myself for that.

Have you ever turned on the computer and seen videos of people just like you in far away countries, and countries not far away at all, being beaten and imprisoned and tortured and murdered because they are just like you?

And that feels oppressive.

Three weeks ago I was on the television and I said that I believed that people who actively campaign for gay people to be treated less or differently are, in my gay opinion, homophobic. Some people, people who actively campaign for gay people to be treated less under the law took great exception at this characterisation and threatened legal action against me and RTÉ. RTÉ, in its wisdom, decided incredibly quickly to hand over a huge sum of money to make it go away. I haven't been so lucky.

And for the last three weeks I have been lectured by heterosexual people about what homophobia is and who should be allowed identify it. Straight people - ministers, senators, lawyers, journalists - have lined up to tell me what homophobia is and what I am allowed to feel oppressed by. People who have never experienced homophobia in their lives, people who have never checked themselves at a pedestrian crossing, have told me that unless I am being thrown in prison or herded onto a cattle train, then it is not homophobia.

And that feels oppressive.

So now Irish gay people find ourselves in a ludicrous situation where not only are we not allowed to say publicly what we feel oppressed by, we are not even allowed to think it because our definition has been disallowed by our betters.

And for the last three weeks I have been denounced from the floor of parliament to newspaper columns to the seething morass of internet commentary for "hate speech" because I dared to use the word "homophobia". And a jumped-up queer like me should know that the word "homophobia" is no longer available to gay people. Which is a spectacular and neat Orwellian trick because now it turns out that gay people are not the victims of homophobia - homophobes are.

But I want to say that it is not true. I don't hate you.

I do, it is true, believe that almost all of you are probably homophobes. But I'm a homophobe. It would be incredible if we weren't. To grow up in a society that is overwhelmingly homophobic and to escape unscathed would be miraculous. So I don't hate you because you are homophobic. I actually admire you. I admire you because most of you are only a bit homophobic. Which all things considered is pretty good going.

But I do sometimes hate myself. I hate myself because I fucking check myself while standing at pedestrian crossings. And sometimes I hate you for doing that to me.

But not right now. Right now, I like you all very much for giving me a few moments of your time. And I thank you for it.


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