Mutual Aid and Transgressing Place: Panti Bliss’ journey to activism in The Queen of Ireland

Panti Bliss, aka, Rory O Neill, has been busy of late. April 30th saw the activist end a global tour of 250 shows of High Heels in Low Places over three years, at the Abbey Theatre. The previous week, Panti was doing what she does best, rallying the troupes at A Night in the Key of 8 at the Olympia Theatre. Running late to it, I bumped into her on the street, and over small talk about the Marriage Equality Campaign, she casually said, “On with the next campaign!” I have always viewed Panti as having a cunning ability to draw inferences from different parts of life, and summating her/his experiences into rousing speeches that fosters a sense of anger, passion and motivation to go forward and do more in different audiences. To appreciate Panti’s activism and effectiveness in reaching a broad audience, this blogpost will discuss Conor Horgan’s The Queen of Ireland (2015). In particular, I describe the impact placelessness and belonging had on Panti Bliss and her creator Rory O’Neill as portrayed in the landscapes of the film. After providing a brief historical context to the Marriage Equality campaign, I discuss how power, in the form of mutual aid, plays a role in both the transgression of spaces and the creation of cultural development in Rory/Panti’s lives as depicted in the film.

The Queen of Ireland tracks the life of drag queen Panti Bliss and her creator Rory O’ Neill through a particularly active time in the Irish LGBTQ+ movement, from 2010-2015. Civil Partnership became a legal reality in Ireland in 2010, while the campaign for Marriage Equality began to take effect in 2008, with an annual march  and the establishment of the not-for-profit national grassroots advocacy organisation Marriage Equality occurring in the same year, following the KAL Advocacy Initiative, which followed the case of two lesbian Irish citizens getting married in Canada. Other important events that occurred in the decades leading to the marriage equality referendum are listed in Table 1.

1961 The Offences Against the Person Act, 1861, made “buggery” an offence punishable by penal servitude.
1970 The Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform set up and spearheaded by David Norris.
1974 Irish Gay Rights Movement was established.
1976 Irish Council for Civil Liberties established by Mary Robinson.
1979 National Gay Federation established. Changes its name to National Lesbian and Gay Federation (NLGF) in 1991, and again to National LGBT Federation (NXF) in 2014, both name changes occurred to provide further inclusivity within the LGBTQ+ community.
1981 First gay conference held.
1982 Declan Flynn murdered in Fairview for being homosexual.
1983 Declan Flynn’s murderers are given suspended sentences.
1983 David Norris brings a case against the state to the high court, when it gets rejected he brings it to the supreme court with Mary Robinson as representation.
1983 GLEN Gay and Lesbian Equality Network was established.
1983 First Pride march in Dublin, became known as a parade in later years as it became less politicised.
1988 Norris appealed to the European Court of Human Rights which ruled in his favour. It took a further 5 years of lobbying by Senator Norris and organisations including GLEN to have the laws repealed.
1988 GLEN Gay and Lesbian Network founded.
1988 GCN (Gay Community News) begins publication.
1992 Mary Robinson as President invites a group of gay and lesbian activists to Aras an Uachtaráin.
1993 Ireland passed Criminal Fraud (Sexual Offences) Bill repealing the laws criminalising homosexuality and did so based on an equal age of consent for both heterosexual and homosexual couples.
2006 Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan bring a case to the high court to have their Canadian marriage recognised in Ireland, the case is rejected.
2008 Marriage Equality is established resultant of the KAL Advocacy Initiative (KAL stands for Katherine and Ann Louise).
2008 First march for marriage equality; approximately 50 people march to the civil marriage offices where David Norris addresses the crowd.
2009 Panti Bliss gives a rousing speech to the crowd at the Pride Parade after party (depicted in The Queen of Ireland at 50 min:42sec (Horgan, 2015)).
2010 Civil Partnership Bill is passed through the Dáil.
2011 First openly gay TDs elected: John Lyons, Jerry Buttimer and Dominic Hannigan.
2013 79% of the Constitutional Convention votes in favour of extending marriage rights to same sex couples.
2014 “Pantigate” erupts following an interview on the Saturday Night Show, followed by Rory O’Neill and RTE being sued. Panti Bliss speaks at a Noble Call in the Abbey Theatre, 1 February 2015.
2015 Marriage Equality Referendum passes with a 62% majority, 22 May 2015.
Table 1:  Important events in the decades leading to Marriage Equality in Ireland.

Sources: GLEN (2016), Irish Council for Civil Liberties (2016), Marriage Equality (2016), NXF (2016), Sheehan (2013), Shiels McNamee (2015), Walsh (2015).

In the film, Panti is depicted as first taking on a leadership role in the gay community in Dublin, and then becoming an ‘accidental activist’. Through interview vignettes with director Conor Horgan, Rory portrays himself as a radical and Panti as the vehicle with which to challenge the status quo and enact change. However, in an interview following the release of the documentary, both Conor Horgan and Rory O’Neill, when asked what their expectations were from making the film, they stated that they had no real vision for the film, save for Horgan’s knowledge of Rory as an activist and Panti as an entertainer. Yet what became evident through the filmmaking process, which began in 2010, was that a process of mutual aid was also documented. As proposed by Kropotkin, mutual aid is a “central evolutionary force” (Kearns, 2009: 57), and is an enormous part of LGBTQ+ life. An example of this includes the both the way the project was financed, through crowdfunding, which started in 2014, and the reasons for needing to do so, namely, Pantigate and the events surrounding it. The resulting film was a social-realist visual text for the changing political and social landscape of Ireland from 2014-2015. This was only possible through the actions of Rory O’Neill, a visionary of his time. He saw clearly and articulated succinctly what others sensed but could not quite grasp.

In the film, Rory’s experiences of place, and sense of belonging, or lack thereof, are depicted as having shaped Rory to become the radical activist that stood up for the LGBTQ+ of Ireland. This is evident in the various places Rory/ Panti are situated, including in: Ballinrobe, Dublin, London, and Japan, and more generally in the world through social media. Each of these locations had different effect on how Rory felt “in or out of place” (Cresswell, 1996), and the power-geometry at play is based on positionality in each (Massey, 1994). How we interact within certain places creates sociocultural power, whereby certain behaviours are socially considered to be “in place”, while others are considered “out of place” (Cresswell, 1996). “Cultural values, ways of behaving, even ways of looking come together to order and border places” (Anderson, 2010: 104). Rory/Panti’s sense of place and belonging is tracked throughout the documentary film starting with his childhood in county Mayo. Rory describes Ballinrobe in a quintessentially geographical manner: “Ballinrobe is your typical Irish country market town, has a couple of streets, a town hall, a cattle mart, there was great excitement when Tesco came to town” (Horgan, 2015: 5min:45sec). While Rory narrates this, Horgan concurrently narrates in visuals, with images of a tractor coming up a street (Plate 1), a
row of shops on a main street (Plate 2) — it could be any rural town in Ireland.

Ballinrobe

Plate 1: Ballinrobe
Source: Screenshot from: The Queen of Ireland (Horgan 2015), 05min 43sec.

Ballinrobe2

Plate 2: Ballinrobe
Source: Screenshot from: The Queen of Ireland (Horgan 2015), 1hour 09min 43sec.

As a child, Rory felt like he belonged. He had a “pretty idyllic” childhood (Horgan 2015, 7min:55sec), Ballinrobe was home for Rory until he was around 11-12 years old when he began to feel differently than the other boys; he noticed he was into different things. Rory indicates his sense of self-awareness at knowing boarding school was positive for him, as he needed to be anywhere else but that small town. His sense of belonging had changed due to his sexuality. He felt like a “square peg in a Ballinrobe shaped hole” (ibid 8min:26sec).

His sense of not belonging, along with others that would come to self-identify as LGBTQ+, was reflective of cultural norms of the time; their positionalities in conservative Ireland put them in a vulnerable position. Deirdre Campbell cites this as Irish nationalism imagined with a heteronormative slant (2016: 26). Rory recalls that he was 11 years old when Pope John Paul II made his famous visit to Ireland and went to Knock in Co. Mayo. O’Neill had an epiphany of sorts: he didn’t feel wonder, as he was supposed to, when joined with hundreds of others in prayer, but began to feel different, and that he “didn’t feel [he] belonged in Ballinrobe” (Reynolds, 2014). The Pope’s visit had a strong impact on political and social change in Ireland in the 1980s more generally, when “abortion (1983) and divorce (1986) were made unconstitutional by referenda” (Pettitt, 1999: 63), issues that quite negatively affected Irish life and has taken years for Irish society to address and continues to tackle. It seems somehow fitting that Rory first began to feel out of place at this event with the Pope. Today, Rory is fighting for bodily autonomy through the Repeal the Eight Campaign.

Rory, in the stifling backdrop that was conservative Ireland, like anybody else, wanted to fit in, to belong. He went to art college looking for his kin, because “you’ll find queers there” (Horgan, 2015: 12min:14sec). It was through his college experience and his new friendships, particularly with Niall Sweeney, that Rory began to go clubbing, where he experienced the real underground world. This was pivotal for O’Neill in his journey to become a radical activist. He saw that two realities could exist independent of one another. It was a time he cites as so exciting that he has spent half his life trying to “recapture that excitement” (ibid, 13min:58sec). The inclusion in a community, the finding of his kin, added to the sense of excitement O’Neill felt. Yet, this was also Dublin during the 1980s, the decade where recession hit hard and street drugs such as heroin entered the market. Declan Flynn, a young gay man, was murdered in 1983 and his murderers released with suspended sentences, resulting in public furore. Nonetheless, the first Pride march was established also in that year, and later Pride parades in Dublin would see the transgression of LGBTQ+ life into the heteronormative world.

Rory took off for Japan during a time when Dublin was “grey” and “depressed,” and a “difficult place to be fabulous” (ibid 15min:12sec). As Panti’s emerging identity was tied up with being fabulous, he felt there was no place for him to achieve this in 1980s Dublin. As a radical, moreover, he couldn’t allow his body to be bordered by the conservative norms of repressed Ireland; cultural change had not occurred sufficiently to allow him to transgress the normative spaces. Cronin (2004) argues that the cultural change that did arrive later resulted from the cultural, political and ideological shifts that happened during the Celtic Tiger years, when consumer driven capitalistic economy allowed for the incorporation of the LGBTQ+ political movement in Irish life. For Cronin, the delayed interception of modernity from liberal capitalism first led to the freedom won by women in the 1970s, and would later by LGBTQ+ rights in the 1990s. Either way, there was no space for a fabulous queer or drag queen in Dublin during the 1980s, so Rory took off.

Japan gave Rory O’Neill and the newly emerged Panti freedom as well as celebrity status. Normative spaces were not only transgressed, but were superseded. It was here that Panti found adoration, and here that Rory found he could be himself and be accepted and loved for it. This was also pivotal moment in his life journey, one in which he describes as “before that time and after” (ibid, 19min:34sec). The time spent in Japan was when Rory evolved as an activist, and Panti developed as a celebrity.  It also provided the ideal temporal intermission from Ireland, as he states: “when I came back to Dublin in the mid-90s, I found the city bursting with energy and possibilities. It was creative and fun” (ibid, 20min:38sec). Pettitt reinforces Rory’s observations stating: “a burst of film production took place after 1993” (1999: 62), and the establishment and development of Alternative Miss Ireland (AMI) reflected the growth of the LGBTQ+ creative community. Further, the removal of the legislation allowing gay men (as lesbians were effectively not recognised) to be themselves without fear of legal repercussions, gave creative freedom to many. It also released creative tensions that had been forced underground up to this point. Legally, with the passing of the decriminalisation bill, for the first time, gay men no longer felt out of place. It provided visibility and some security being seen in public space. No longer was David Norris the “Irish homosexual” (ibid, 10min:03sec).

Nonetheless more work needed to be done. Geographer Kath Browne (2007) speaks of a continuous negotiation of complex interrelationships using normalised social codes. Her insights match with Panti’s now infamous speech at the Abbey Theatre in 2014, in which she describes having to continuously “check oneself” Describing what it means to behave in a manner to try to fit in, rather than allowing the world to fit around you, Panti’s speech describing how painful it is to always have to ‘check oneself’ can be considered an extra-ordinary act to “resist and subvert everyday hegemonic power relations” (Browne, 2007: 64).

Panti

Mark O Halloran also talks about forms of “checking oneself” in the documentary, commenting on the fact that homosexuals have had the act of public intimacy robbed from them, reducing any public performance of intimacy a political act (Horgan, 2015, 35min:58sec). The transgression of heteronormative spaces by usually “hidden” LGBTQ+ people and other “non-normative” actors occurs during the annual Pride parade (Browne, 2007).  Pride creates a space where the LGBTQ+ people can come together as a community, and raise what social issues affects them as a community. Here activists rally the crowds, including Panti, who self-identifies as a commentator who shouts abuse from the fringes (Horgan, 2015, 2min:53sec). In 2009, while fulfilling this role, Panti spoke to a crowd saying: “any asshole can get married … any fascist, any murderer, any sex offender can get married, but YOU cannot” (ibid, 50min:42sec). Telling the crowd to “get your righteous anger on” and get active in the campaign, Panti appealed to the mutual aid ideology that underpins LGBTQ+ life. And it worked. The community was divided at the time between those in favour or civil partnership, and those in favour of full and equal rights. The crowd in attendance at the talk that day included many people who became the regional campaign leaders for the Marriage Equality Campaign. This mutual aid ideology is something that followed through the intervening years, from the campaign’s production of Sinead’s Hand (a short video advertisement of a young man going from door to door, from person to person throughout Ireland asking for permission to get married, and ending with ‘How would you feel if you had to ask 4 million people to get permission to get married?’), through to the Yes Equality campaign that resulted in the successful passing of the referendum in 2015. Evidenced in the hundreds of volunteers that knocked on every door in their town asking for a yes vote, evidenced in the crowdfunding efforts that went towards hundreds of events over the years, particularly during the period that this documentary was filmed, including crowdfunding for Sinead’s Hand and the Yes Equality bus tour.

YesEquality

Plate 4: Yes Equality Bus Tour
Source: McTiernan, 2015

Cronin (1993), in his examination of Irish gay fiction, highlights the “coming out” story as having left gay identity devoid of radical political potential because it reduced power to an individual level. Perhaps outside of the mutual aid community of LGBTQ+, this may be true. From this perspective, Rory O’Neill’s/Panti Bliss’ worth as visionaries in their ability to communicate to others how it feels to experience inequality. Moreover, Panti Bliss has now become welcomed into the homes of the average Irish household, with her ability to speak truth when this liberal capitalist world we have become accustomed to seems to only speak in according to sales pitches. Rory’s motivation for Panti’s journey and political activism may be personal — “Look at me! I’m dressed as a giant woman, and yet, somehow even I still harbour these little shames about it. I don’t want to!” (Horgan, 2015, 44min:18sec). Yet the changes they are fostering are widespread, open, welcoming and highlight mutual respect, factors that, for Kropotkin, legitimised mutual aid. Panti has reshaped modern Ireland, heralding modernity through the Marriage Equality Referendum, and, according to Campbell (2016), the referendum in turn has reshaped Irish national identity.

Rhonda McGovern
Geography Single Honours, Third Year, Maynooth University

This blogpost developed from an essay for GY339 City in Film, third year undergraduate geography module in Maynooth University. Huge thanks to Professor Karen Till for her editorial role in the writing of this blog.

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