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What Exactly Was Your Point, Panti?

A recent media storm in Ireland illustrates the perils of being unable to leave a liberal bandwagon un-jumped upon

Photo CC Tbrambo

Does the name Panti Bliss mean anything to you? She's a Dublin-based drag queen who attracted worldwide attention earlier this year when a speech she made went viral and received support from the likes of Stephen Fry, Madonna and The Pet Shop Boys.


As a Dublin-based liberal with a background in journalism myself, my initial reaction was positive but on reflection the speech – and reaction to it – seemed to reveal several examples of blog-era sloppy journalism, mixed messages and poor analysis. The chattering classes, desperately eager to appear ever-so-liberal, seemed to positively leap on board Panti's cause without rationally thinking it through or applying a modicum of analysis; suddenly everyone was banging a drum but most were not 100% sure why or what for.


It started when she was interviewed on a primetime Irish TV chat show and complained about homophobia in Ireland. The interviewer pressed her to name names, and she did so. Those she had accused of homophobia had made it clear publicly that they are not in favour of same sex marriage but took exception to being called homophobes on primetime TV and sued the station, RTE, for libel. RTE made the decision to settle the claim and paid up – a prudent decision in my view, as defending the libel would have had them on extremely shaky (and costly) ground. Shortly thereafter Panti Bliss appeared on stage after a performance at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin (renowned for serious theatre since 1904) and made an impassioned speech about her right to call people homophobes; and how she feels oppressed as a gay person in Ireland.


On a Channel 4 news interview a few days later Panti clarified that she was not singling Irish society out and that her UK friends would feel the same way and have experienced homophobia, as she put it. She also spoke about not tolerating “low level” homophobia in society.


I come from a liberal Dublin family and have understood gay rights are human rights since the concepts were explained to me, yet Panti’s speech, and the resulting furore, really jarred with me. I didn't object to anything that she said per se, and it was a superb delivery of a speech, absolutely breath-taking in fact. But the content wasn't ground-breaking and the response left me asking whether people had taken leave of their senses.


In the most extreme example, the highly respected Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole referred to it as "the most eloquent Irish speech since [renowned 18th-19th Century political activist] Daniel O'Connell was in his prime." My inner Fenian absolutely shrieked in horror at reading that. In addition to rolling in his grave, I'd have understood if Mr O’Connell had actually burst out of it in indignation at the comparison.


Panti’s speech was simply not comparable with O’Connell’s great orations, which were about Catholic emancipation – giving the 96% of the population of the island of Ireland the right to be educated and to have a say in their governance through the right to a vote; just as Lincoln’s speeches were focused in their aim to end slavery in America; and Mandela’s were about ending apartheid – one man, one vote.


Having listened to Panti’s impassioned, and no-doubt genuinely heartfelt, speech I remain at a loss to garner an end game, a key message. What was she actually hoping to achieve? If she could make it happen how would she wish society to be different? And what would she have society do to change itself?


The only tangible example of discrimination she mentions is an incident where young lads in a car hurl a milk carton at her and shout homophobic abuse – a horrible thing to experience. But isn't this a poor example of homophobia as a societal issue? There will always be thugs driving round in cars, full of their own insecurities, taking out their sense of inadequacy on others they feel may be more vulnerable, or just plain different – whether an attractive woman in a short skirt, a teenager on the way back from a hockey match, or a man dressed in drag. All such attentions are likely to be unwelcome at best.


You don't have to be homosexual to feel qualified to discuss discrimination; I've experienced it myself. During my 14 years living in London, I was the victim of so much anti-Irishness, ranging from subtle to not at all subtle, from all echelons of society, in the workplace and in a variety of social situations, that it would take hours to recount them all. I know many Irish people who, like me, have suffered similarly, and some that say they have never experienced any racism all.


Next, Panti refers to “checking herself” when standing at traffic lights or on the train with a friend speaking in a loud, camp voice, so as to appear less gay, and how she hates that about herself. How much of that is as a result of endemic societal homophobia as opposed to just anyone with a high-register voice attracting the attention of passers-by or other passengers on a train? Would it be any different on a Tube in London where if you speak at all everyone stares and you may be viewed as a potential maniac?


My instant gut reaction to Panti’s comments were “welcome to my world” as a female. What woman, perhaps dressed up, perhaps wearing something eye-catching or attractive, has not “checked herself” at a traffic lights, not wanting to attract the wrong kind of attention, the kind that leaves one squirming and feeling uncomfortable? I have a reasonably “girlie” voice and I cannot count the number of times I have “checked myself” in a professional environment (latterly in the City of London), to sound less “girlie”, in case my voice might reduce my perceived gravitas. I have also “checked myself” in a professional environment to appear less heterosexual (this is probably not such an everyday occurrence yet!), less Irish, less “mummy-ish” – because on those occasions I assumed that each (or all) of those aspects of me would put me at a disadvantage in terms of my colleagues’ attitudes and perceptions about me. Everyone’s daily human interactions are littered with preconceptions about each other, and assumptions about how individuals will react to us and the things we are communicating to them.


Not everyone is liberal, clearly, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether Panti was, at least in part, projecting her fears onto the straight community in a way that doesn't accurately reflect the way much of the straight community thinks – demonising straight people and assuming that they are staring at her with hatred and/or prejudice, as opposed to natural human curiosity. Certainly, as a drag queen, there is always a sense of performing a show, and costumes tend to be exaggerated and showy – big hair, theatrical make-up, high heels and eye-catching dresses. So people on their daily commute from their office jobs in the UK and Ireland will (I would argue, naturally) stare if they see a drag queen in costume crossing the road, yes, whereas in Sitges or Mykonos, where drag queens are more numerous, people going about their business may not give a second glance. But I cannot honestly imagine that many of those people staring at Panti these days are thinking hateful or unaccepting thoughts.


Finally, following Panti's speech untold verbal bedlam ensued, with Panti supporters seemingly calling virtually everyone a homophobe and it being widely contended that anyone who questions the right to same sex marriage (SSM) in particular is a homophobe. Dictionary definitions of homophobia vary a fair bit, but all of them speak of a fear of, hatred towards or an irrational aversion to homosexuality and homosexual people.


It's easy to understand that gay people will find the very idea of people discussing their right to marry or not insulting and distasteful. The idea of people sitting around discussing what you, in my opinion reasonably, consider a fundamental human right is upsetting. And anyone who has ever experienced any form of discrimination should empathise. But like it or not, some people think that the union of two people of the same sex should not be called marriage. And, as long as they are not inciting hatred against gay people, or making general statements about gay people that are unpleasant and hateful, then that is their right and not homophobic in itself. Anti equal rights for all, perhaps, but not necessarily fearful or hateful in itself.


Ireland is holding a referendum on same sex marriage in 2015 and recent polls here indicate a healthy 76% of the electorate will vote in favour. SSM is already legal in the UK, so in itself it's something of a non-issue. My concern is Panti's speech, and what followed, may actually have damaged SSM's cause in Ireland (Northern Ireland is still to come).


Certainly Panti got people talking about homophobia. And what she said clearly spoke to the hearts of many gay people, especially when she spoke about the internalised sense of oppression, embarrassment or shame in being gay that some gay people experience. She may not have intended to but Panti has arguably become a mascot for SSM and all homosexual-related civil rights issues. The Pet Shop Boys have sampled part of her speech in one of their tracks; the mayor of New York invited Panti to this year’s St Patrick’s Day parade. All over Facebook people were joining “I’m on Team Panti”. Why? In support of which cause?


But, despite the huge media storm it created, the speech didn't state clearly the wider problem, nor what needed to be addressed. I have since spoken to a good number of gay and straight people about their reactions to the Panti saga. Many straight people told me they were rather bewildered about it, and some of the gay people felt it was a little outdated, saying all the major battles for gay rights have been won in the UK, and the final one for SSM will soon be in Ireland.


Let’s grit our teeth and allow the few “howling nutters” (as one of my gay friends put it) start their rant about gay marriage being “against nature” and all those awful things they are bound to say, through their ignorance and/or plain bigotry. And also let’s accept that there are those among us in society who are generally decent people who believe in equality for all, but who are uncomfortable about the concept of marriage, which has hitherto meant the union between a man and a woman, being forever fundamentally changed to allow the same unions between two men or two women in the eyes of the law.


These generally decent and logical people may take time to realise that gay marriage does not defile the concept of marriage, but they're not going to reach that realisation by watching a drag queen make a passionate address about homophobia and feeling oppressed. Why? Because the message is unclear; because they don’t understand what it means; and because the average, fairly provincial British or Irish person, who is just about getting their head around having a gay GP or solicitor, is probably ready to hear logical arguments in favour of same sex marriage, but not quite ready for the persuasions of a drag queen.


If anything this all plays to the fears of the ignorant and old ideas such as that “all gays want to go round in dresses – and that’s just weird”. Looking at this solely in terms of a political campaign and spin you'd analyse the prevailing stereotypes and, if mascots were needed, pick middle class professional males and females, preferably boring ones – accountants and librarians, say, who like hill-walking at the weekend. Quash the negative and inaccurate preconceptions and turn them on their heads by simply being themselves, and with clear fact, such as gay people in civil unions are three times more likely to stick together than married straight couples.


In time, as more people get to know or hear about gay teachers, doctors, lawyers, greengrocers, heavyweight journalists and politicians longlasting in same sex marriages, the conservative's argument that gay people are more fickle in their relationships or that they don’t take the vow of marriage as seriously as straight people, will be negated in fact and the concept of SSM will no longer raise the eyebrows of the more traditional among us.


Spare us, please, from sensationalist bandwagon-ism. Let's get back to high journalistic standards and proper analysis, both in the stories themselves and readers' reactions. Let's stop blurring lines, talking vaguely about “homophobia” without clearly defining what specific discrimination needs to be addressed, whether through legislation or by society itself. And let's not take the argument back in time by opening up the whole original, and now surely outdated, “gay rights” debate to the few actual homophobes who are still at large in society; let's not give them a fresh opportunity and platform to start ranting bigotry all over again.

Varenna Porsche

About the Writer

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Varenna has a degree in law from Trinity College Dublin. She is a writer and mother of four.


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