“I am, yes, I’m quite sanguine,” says Rory O’Neill when we get a personal audience with him during his visit to Australia to promote The Queen Of Ireland at The Sydney Film Festival. “No, I’m not one of those who’s hiding a depressive side, no.”
And that is key to how Rory O’Neill – better known with wig, make-up and attitude turned up to 11 as performer, Panti Bliss – became such a vital player in Ireland’s marriage equality movement. The expertly made documentary, The Queen Of Ireland, takes in O’Neill’s life, from his humble upbringing in a small Irish town to his sexual and professional awakening in Japan, and his accidental role as a figurehead in both AIDS awareness and marriage equality.
When we spoke with O’Neill, it was only three days after the tragic Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando. O’Neill owns a gay bar in Ireland, so we thought that it was only fitting to ask for his thoughts. “Obviously, it’s horrible, but I do think that people are struggling to understand why gay people all around the world are so upset about it,” he replies. “And I think to me, that’s about how there’s this shared experience growing up and being gay anywhere. I’ve never been to Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, but I’ve been to Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. I can tell you what kind of people were there, and what music they were listening to. There’s a shared queer culture and shared experience of being queer. We even have the little gay language. I can go to Orlando and talk about throwing shade and they’ll know what I mean. There’s a sacred quality to a gay bar. They’re the places that you go where you can be absolutely yourself, without fear or favour. They’re the only places where you can do that. You can flame out and be as queeny as you want in a gay bar, but you can’t be like that on the subway in the morning. And the degrees of separation are so small in the international gay community, so when they released the first four names of identified people, ten minutes later, one of the other drag queens from Dublin has put up a picture of her with those four people. The world is so small. We go to the same holiday destinations, and when we go to a town, we go to the gay clubs, so it feels super close to all the gay people.”
Directed by Conor Horgan, The Queen Of Ireland documentary started life in 2009. “I think they just decided in the beginning to do it on me because I was a mouthy queen,” admits O’Neill. “Both Conor and I thought at the time that we were agreeing to make a small character documentary, but three years into the filming, I got into all that scandal, and Conor was fucking thrilled.” That scandal involved O’Neill being invited to a chat show on the national broadcaster and openly discussing the discrimination felt by the gay community in the general populace. This was followed by a speech with similar sentiments made by Panti Bliss at a Dublin theatre, which went viral, and Rory/Panti became an icon of the burgeoning marriage equality movement in Ireland.
“Things can change very quickly,” says O’Neill today. “A few things just happen to swing it. The whole Panti-gate silliness did start this huge, massive debate about homophobia and how Ireland treats its citizens. That was all eighteen months before the referendum campaign, so by the time it came to the referendum campaign, we’d all just had this deep big national conversation, and the dirtiest of the laundry had already been aired out. The parameters had already been set. That played a big part in the end, just accidentally.
“One event can change the whole country,” O’Neill continues. “Ireland is very much based around tight-knit communities and families. We were forced into having a referendum because of our constitution. And when it came to voting, basically over the last thirty years, so many gay people have come out, and now going around Ireland, it’s impossible not to know a queer person. You could live in Texas and not know a queer person, but you cannot live in Ireland and not know a queer person, because it’s so small. And when it came to it, the day of the vote, when people were voting, people did not want to vote against Joe their nephew, Mary their sister, their daughter, or the bloke that cuts their hair, or the next door neighbour. That’s what it was about: all of our personal connections. And people voted for people that they actually know. That’s why it passed.”
What are his thoughts about Australia? “Well, you haven’t had the chance to vote for it,” O’Neill replies. “I don’t think you should, because I don’t think we should have had a referendum. They’re risky. If you don’t get the right results, you might have to wait another generation. I don’t think the majority should get to vote on the rights of the minorities, and the referendum campaign itself is a really horrible experience. It’s six months of people saying awful things about you, and they’re allowed to say things during that six months. So I don’t think that you should. We were forced into it, but having said that, when you get the right result, it’s much more powerful to do it that way, because people can’t complain about it. Every country has their own histories and their own vagaries of their politics or whatever, but I have no doubt that Australia will have marriage equality sometime fairly soon.”
The Queen Of Ireland is released in cinemas on September 8.