It would be a mistake to simply classify Panti Bliss as your everyday drag queen. Rory O’ Neil, the male alter ego/creator behind the iconic Irish diva has been at the forefront of gay rights activism through the outspoken performances of Panti. Speaking out on national television, and criticising a group of activists on their questionable views on homosexuality sent her into the mainstream spotlight, resulting in a lawsuit being filed against her that created a public outcry that was referred to as ‘Pantigate’. We caught up with Panti leading up to her performance in the Midsumma festival in Melbourne, to find out just how we can join in on the riot movement.
How was Panti Bliss born?
I started doing drag as an art student in the late 80’s but it wasn’t till I was living in Japan in the 90’s that Panti emerged, as part of a double act called CandiPanti.
The ‘Pantigate’ controversy resulted in a movement that lead to you being thrown into the spotlight as a celebrated activist. Did you ever anticipate that speaking out would have such an impact?
No, not at all. I’ve always had a big mouth and it sometimes gets me into trouble, but at the time I assumed that the Pantigate controversy would be no more significant than the others.
You have done an incredible amount of work in support of HIV awareness. For a topic that is unfortunately still widely considered taboo in some circles, what more do you think can be done to generate awareness?
We needed more and sustained public awareness campaigns, and – although I appreciate it’s not easy – we need more people living with HIV to come out.
Same sex marriage recently became legal in Australia (finally!), after a long, torturous plebiscite campaign process. After being a large part of the victorious campaign for marriage equality in Ireland what do you anticipate we have to look forward to in terms of social change and acceptance?
I hope that Australia, like Ireland, discovers that although the public vote was difficult and unnecessary, it has some unexpected silver linings. Certainly in Ireland doing it by referendum resulted in it being a finished conversation now. Unlike in other countries where ME was achieved by legislation and where it remains a divisive and *live* issue, in Ireland it is a finished conversation.
Also, the public vote resulted in the LGBTI community here being very confident in our place in Irish society. All the dirty laundry was aired during the campaign, and at the end of it, the country told us how they feel about us. And they are fine with us! It’s been liberating in a way we didn’t anticipate.
You have previously voiced your concern about the “mainstreaming of gayness”. What does this mean for you?
While I am adamantly in favour of marriage equality etc, and of LGBTI people having the same choices available to them as everyone else, I also don’t want LGBTI people to feel pressured into getting married or into living their lives in a particular way. One of the joys of being LGBTI in the party was that while we were ignored or excluded from the mainstream, it meant we were free to make up other ways of being happy. Queer ways. And I don’t want to lose those in a rush to be mainstreamed. If you want to marry a doctor and move to the suburbs, good for you! But also, if you want to be in a thruple and move to a lesbian commune in Tasmania and make goats cheese… good for you too!
How has Panti evolved over the years?
She’s evolved into the kind of gal who can’t stay out all night anymore!
You’ve had documentaries made about your life, and a TV show is in the making. Can you share with us something about yourself that hasn’t been revealed yet that most people wouldn’t know?
I’m 49 years old but I have the pelvic floor of a 25 year old.
What can audiences expect from Riot at the Midsumma festival?
It’s a loud, colorful, hilarious, glitter-covered spectacle, but one that also packs an emotional and thoughtful punch. It runs the gamut from circus to poetry, and one moment you’re howling laughing, and the next your stomach is clenched and you’re crying.
Any advice to give to young activists who want to follow in your footsteps and riot against the system?
Never give up. Be bold.
Photographer: Conor Horgan Niall Sweeney
Talent: Panti Bliss, Ronan Brady and the cast of RIOT.
Interview with Panti Bliss by Sara Nicolette.
Catch Panti Bliss in RIOT at the Midsumma Festival in Melbourne 31st Jan-9th Feb