Iconic

Dishing with Irish drag superstar Panti Bliss

Richard Burnett
Commentaires
Pantil

Irish drag queen and self-described “accidental activist” Panti Bliss became a YouTube sensation after she walked onto the stage at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in February 2014 and gave a touching and memorable speech on homophobia. 


“Have you ever been standing at a pedestrian crossing when a car drives by and in it are a bunch of lads, and they lean out the window and they shout “Fag!” and throw a milk carton at you?” Miss Panti asked the Abbey Theatre audience rhetorically. “Now it doesn’t really hurt. It’s just a wet carton and anyway they’re right – I am a fag. But it feels oppressive.
 
“When it really does hurt, is afterwards. Afterwards I wonder and worry and obsess over what was it about me, what was it they saw in me? What was it that gave me away? And I hate myself for wondering that. It feels oppressive and the next time I’m at a pedestrian crossing I check myself to see what is it about me that ‘gives the gay away’ and I check myself to make sure I’m not doing it this time.”
 
I can relate: I live in the McGill Ghetto in downtown Montreal and I can’t tell you how many times over the years folks in drive-by cars have screamed “Faggot!” at me at the corner of Parc Avenue and Milton.

 

«When I’ve done drag I’ve always rejected terms like female impersonator because that’s not what I’m doing. As for drag queens being bitchy, they’re just being themselves! If I am parodying anything at all, it is the tools our society expects women to use to express their femininity. What I’m really doing is taking those tolls – make-up, big hair and sequins – that our society decided women have to use and that men are not allowed to use.»

 
 
Meanwhile, the video of Panti’s speech at the Abbey Theatre went viral and has now been seen more than 700,000 times on YouTube. It also landed Panti a popular 2014 North American lecture tour that brought her to Montreal’s Concordia University. Upon her return to Dublin, publishing house Hachette Books Ireland asked Panti (a.k.a. Rory O'Neill) to write her memoirs, the recently-published Woman in the Making, which Panti is cross-promoting on her current North American lecture tour. On this tour Panti returned to Concordia University where she packed the D.B. Clark Theatre on Feb. 16.
 
“The turnaround on the book was less than six months,” says O'Neill. “But saying I cashed in suggests I was given loads of money, and I wasn’t. It is part memoir, part rant. And I have two chapters about the aftermath of my lecture at the Abbey Theatre. It was an insane period in my life, exciting and exhilerating.”
 
“It’s a conversation about gender, a topic I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about over the years: Whether it is socially constructed and something we just learned to perform. I’ve never been happy with the descriptions people generally use to describe what I do because I’ve never felt like I’m impersonating a female. That is something that is thrown at drag queens sometimes by a subsection of feminists: ‘Isn’t it like blackface?’”
 
Panti BlissThat last question, of course, is a reference to American conservative Mary Cheney who reportedly recently posted on Facebook, “Why is it socially acceptable — as a form of entertainment — for men to put on dresses, make-up and high heels and act out every offensive stereotype of women (bitchy, catty, dumb, slutty, etc.) — but it is not socially acceptable — as a form of entertainment — for a white person to put on blackface and act out offensive stereotypes of African Americans? Shouldn't both be OK or neither?"
 
O'Neill is having none of that. 
 
“First of all, there’s a billion kinds of drag queens in the world with different motivations and some of them might be horribly misogynist. So I can only speak for myself: When I’ve done drag I’ve always rejected terms like female impersonator because that’s not what I’m doing. As for drag queens being bitchy, they’re just being themselves! If I am parodying anything at all, it is the tools our society expects women to use to express their femininity. What I’m really doing is taking those tolls – make-up, big hair and sequins – that our society decided women have to use and that men are not allowed to use.”
 
O'Neill adds, “Nobody in their right mind will mistake me for a woman. That’s not what I’m trying to do and I am not trying to convince you I am. I am presenting something that is neither male or female, and there is a power in that.”
 
O'Neill agrees some drag queens do cross the line. “Part of the problem is the bar for entry to drag is set pretty low. Most people don’t see drag or much of it, and when they do it’s usually in some trashy bar. Other queens are just out to have a good time and put little intellectual thought into what they’re doing. They just see it as a way to get a few free drinks. But how can you compare what a Taylor Mac does to your trashy drag queen in a club? There are so many different kinds of drag queens.”
 
Meanwhile, O'Neill is of two minds when it comes to using of word ‘tranny.” In 2013 on Joan Rivers’ Internet TV series In Bed with Joan, RuPaul discussed being slammed by the trans community for using the word ‘tranny.’ Ms. Rivers later told me about the controversy, “The trannies should know that a nigger said it to a kike. Here we go again. Calm down, for chrissakes! Everybody take a deep breath.”
 
“That issue is really complicated because it’s two different worlds colliding,” says O'Neill. “It’s interesting that a lot of the trans who were okay with using the word were people who came into their trans identity a long time ago, pre-Internet, and like a lot of trans people at that time came up through the drag-genderfuck scene, then emerged one day and said, ‘I’m a trans woman.’ In that world the term ‘tranny’ isn’t specific to trans people, it’s a catch-all word for all people who don’t fit into the gender binary. Other people outside that community have taken that word and turned it into an insult. The problem is, certainly in the world I run in, there are lots of people who identify as tranny, not as trans. They don’t believe they are a woman, they are something else and they call themselves tranny. ”
 
“When I am at a party and my friends don’t know that a person identifies as trans or as a transvestite or drag queen, they’ll say, ‘Oh, there are trannies in the corner.’ If I am hanging out with my genderfuck friends, they’ll get annoyed if I don’t use the word tranny. That said, I would never call anybody a tranny in public. I am very careful because I don’t want to upset or hurt anybody.”