A few day after Ireland’s historic marriage referendum, I interviewed activist / drag legend Panti Bliss for Pride Magazine. An edited version of the interview is now in print and the full interview is below.
JMG: First of all, huge congratulations on the marriage referendum! What’s it like to find yourself on the front pages of newspapers and websites around the world?
PANTI: It depends which picture they used! But clearly even God Herself was thrilled about marriage equality coming to Ireland because Dublin was bathed in glorious unseasonal sunshine that day so everybody looks great in the pictures. And even a bad picture couldn’t dampen a drag queen’s mood that day. It was a magnificent, joyous, tearful, happy, celebratory day, not just for Ireland’s LGBTI community, but for our families, friends and allies too. I suspect that on that day, even some of our opponents secretly wished they were drag queens too.
JMG: We’ve read that your activist days go back to the 90s. Who came first, Rory the activist or Panti the gender discombobulator?
PANTI: I guess they’ve always gone hand-in-hand. I’ve always been stubborn and willful, and I am the child of two principled parents who have never been afraid to stand up and call out what they see as unfairness, and some of that rubbed off on me. But as Rory I am quite reserved, and drag gave me a kind of armour from behind which I felt more comfortable being the focus of attention. And in a way it amplified my voice – people pay more attention to an annoying 6’6″ colourful drag queen than they do to an annoying 6′ brown-haired guy in a shirt. Though of course as a twenty year old drag queen I was more interested in the free drinks and the boys than I was in changing the world! And I took all the free drinks and all the boys.
JMG: You first got wide notice in the USA with your now-legendary noble call video. How did that speech come about?
PANTI: At the time I was embroiled in a big news story here (which became known as “Pantigate”) after I suggested on a TV chat show that Ireland had a problem with homophobia, and named a number of well known journalists and an ultra-Catholic, right-wing organisation which campaigns against equality for LGBTI people. This led to both me and Ireland’s national broadcaster being sued for defamation, which in turn led to a national debate about homophobia, free speech, censorship, and the role of the national broadcaster. It was in the middle of all that when the Abbey Theatre (our national theatre) invited me to speak and I agreed because I already had a good relationship with the Abbey, having had my show there previously. But I had absolutely no expectations of that speech. As far as I was concerned I was just making another speech, and assumed the only people who would ever hear it were the five hundred people in the auditorium that night. If I had known then how many people would eventually end up watching it I would have brushed my fucking hair!
JMG: Following the noble call clip going viral, you made an equally viral TedX talk. Many here commented that you would make a great chat show hostess. Any plans for becoming the Irish Graham Norton?
PANTI: Right now I’m still enjoying traveling with my theatre shows and “discombobulating” people with my activist work, but I’ve always thought I’d like to do a chat show sometime. I’ve had a few approaches over the years, but they were never quite right. I haven’t ruled it out. I never rule anything out! Except maybe sex with Michael Flatley. I’ve definitely ruled that out.
JMG: Tell us a bit about your popular Dublin club Pantibar. What kind of crowd do you get? How often do you perform? Do you “channel” any particular artists?
PANTI: I’ve had the bar for eight years. There aren’t many options for aging drag queens (!) so as I approached my forties I thought it might be my pension plan. I imagined myself growing disgracefully old, hanging out behind the bar making a fool of myself over hot Brazilian boys and pulling pints for the gays. Thankfully it all worked out, if not quite how I imagined (except for the growing old part). All the hot Brazilian boys now work behind the bar so hitting on them would be called “workplace sexual harassment”, and I ain’t ruining my nails by pulling pints! We get a fairly mixed crowd (mostly gay boys of all ages, but plenty of lesbians too, and gay tourists) and although I don’t always succeed because I travel a lot with my show, I try to be in Dublin at weekends and hang out and perform there. I don’t really “channel” any particular artists, though I am a big Dolly Parton fan. My biggest drag influence is the 1969 movie The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, starring Maggie Smith. (I know! I can hear the younger gays scratching their heads. Sheesh! Download it kids!)
JMG: Maury Povitch in 1998. Spill!
PANTI: Haha! You’ve been doing your research! One day (not long after I got my first e-mail address) I got an e-mail from The Maury Povitch Show who were looking for men, who lived as women, to go on the show with their mother or sister. And the mother/sister would then ask Maury to give their son/brother a ‘back to boy make-over’. Of course I’m only a part-time woman (and my poor mother would rather die than go on TV with her drag queen son!) so I just thought it was mildly amusing and forgot about it.
But, that night I was in the pub and told my friend Katherine about it and she said, “I should pretend to be your sister and we could get a free trip to New York out of this!” Well, I young and broke, and that sounded like fun, so I said, “Katherine, welcome to the family!”
So the next day I e-mailed them back and told them about my “sister” Katherine and before we knew it we were getting on a flight to New York. We spent the flight getting drunk and inventing a whole new family background for ourselves and making up stories of our childhood. The whole thing was a hoot and we got a few days in New York hanging out with friends and doing the usual touristy stuff out of it. Of course we also had to record the show, and I had to get an embarrassing “back to boy makeover” on TV, but of course this was many years before YouTube (and Maury wasn’t shown in Ireland at the time) so we thought nobody we knew would ever see it! But the Goddamn internet put paid to that, LOL. Oddly, I tell the whole story in my current show. It is a really good story!
JMG: Back to the referendum. One of the most fascinating moments on Saturday was watching you being interviewed alongside Gerry Adams, who is fairly well known among the Irish-American community here on the US east coast. How did you two get on? What did he say to you?
PANTI: Well, I am not a Sinn Fein supporter (these things are much more complicated on this side of the pond), and I was very aware that those photos would get a lot of attention. But I ended up with Gerry simply because he and I and the Minister for Justice were being interviewed together on the live TV broadcast. However, Sinn Fein have long been supporters of gay rights, and long before any of the other major parties they would have a presence in Pride parades here etc. Also earlier that same week Gerry met and was photographed shaking hands and chatting with Prince Charles so I thought I’d top his English prince with an Irish queen!
And it was such a wonderful and celebratory day that I was happy to be pictured with all comers. And on that day there were all comers! Every politician from every party was only too thrilled to embrace the gay that day, and you don’t get gayer than me! Gerry is very personable and was very enthusiastic about the result. Everyone was swept up in the incredible atmosphere that day. He’s also very quirky-fun. If you haven’t already you should check out his Twitter. It’s nuts! A mixture of political stuff and the adventures of his stuffed toy bear and his bath toys. Seriously. It is.
JMG: This year you marched in the LGBT-inclusive St. Pats For All Parade in Queens. Do you think the result of the referendum might finally convince NYC’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade to allow LGBT folks to participate?
PANTI: I’d like to think so but I doubt it. The Ancient Order of Hibernians who organise the Manhattan parade are so calcified and so stuck in a bizarre 1950’s view of Ireland I’m not sure they are capable of change anytime soon. However, even if they do, I hope the St. Pats For All Parade continues, because it’s a really wonderful, grassroots, charming event with real heart that stands on its own.
JMG: Now that marriage is settled, what’s next for the LGBT movement in Ireland?
PANTI: There are a few small legislative issues that still need to be tackled, in particular law that allows institutions with a “religious ethos” to discriminate against LGBTI people. It is particularly a problem here where primary schools are almost entirely under the control of religious orders. Historically, back when the Republic was young and broke, the state ceded the responsibility of primary schooling to religious orders and so LGBTI teachers are often forced into the closet for fear of losing their jobs. However hopefully that will be tackled soon as this government has committed to removing it. After that, like all minorities, we will still have to agitate to maintain our respect. Marriage equality and the achievement of full and equal citizenship under the law is huge, but as they say, “hearts and minds” change more slowly.
JMG: Finally, let’s get a wee bit personal. Is there a man in your life? What would your dream date look like?
PANTI: No there isn’t! Which is a goddamn crime! I think part of the problem is that I’m a national fucking treasure, and nobody wants to fuck a national treasure. I think they think it’d be like masturbating on Mount Rushmore! But I live in hope. I live in hope of a mocha-skinned big-dicker top. But don’t we all…