The appearance of the phrase “Panti Gate” in a charades game at my apartment last weekend proves that the events of the past few weeks have reached a zenith, with gender discombobulist Panti Bliss now a given part of the international charading lexicon.
Much has been said on anywhere from HuffPo to Fox News to the inimitable Broadsheet about Rory O Neill, and especially his Noble Call (below) which recently closed out a performance of 1913 Lockout drama ‘The Risen People’. The substance is, as has been repeated time and again, powerful — and the oratorial style marks it as one of the best speeches to come out of a nation of talkers in a very long time.
But for a moment I’d like to look beyond both the content and the form of the speech, and instead focus on the visual that Rory O Neill presented on that night — or rather, the visual that Rory didn’t present.
The battle for equal marriage is not the be-all and end-all of the gay rights movement. As far as overall importance goes the prize would have to go to the actual decriminalization of homosexual acts, for in the 20 years since that event the LGBT community has grown exponentially in size, visibility and self-awareness. Nor is equal marriage the end of the fight for LGBT rights either, for as veterans of the civil rights or feminist movements can confirm changing the law is only one in a series of steps to achieve true equality.
As a movement, LGBT activism lies somewhere on cusp of first and second wave, with many (though not all) legal and professional rights now under our belts in Western society. The noticeably tricky third wave, the wave of change in our unwritten social rules and opinions, can take generations to come to pass – and will not just be about attitudes in the non-LGBT population, but issues of internal racism, classism and other inequalities that are very much present in this nascently intersectionalist movement.
What does this have to do with Rory O Neill? Nothing. What does this have to do with Panti Bliss? Everything.
If Rory had come on stage and delivered that Noble Call, it no doubt would have been a speech just as powerful, just as necessary, and just as justified. But for Panti to deliver that speech added an element that is equally important: the idea that we should be judged on the content of our message, of our character, and not on how we look.
For far too long the LGBT movement has been engaged in a sort of battle of wits with itself — we must present our differences as not being important by hiding them. By passing ourselves off as straight, with the long-term partner, the 2.4 children, the conservatives views on society and taxation and who’s going to fix the roads.
“Give us equal rights,” we would say, “because we are just like you.”
In the words of Panti, we were constantly checking ourselves. To be gay, but never to be too gay.
There is, of course, a means to an end in all this. We would very much like marriage equality, and unfortunately (due to some inventive legal interpretations) it will require a referendum to do this. So we are a minority living at the legal behest of the majority. Who can blame us for playing along with the safest image possible?
But there is also something deeper in this, something which Panti referred to extensively in her speech, and something that any LGBT person will be able to relate to: we are all homophobic. Gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, trans, we have all grown up in a culture that is so steeped in an idea of what “normal” is that it is tattooed on our souls. As a gay man growing up I was careful to act straight so as to not reveal my sexuality, but even now as a 27-year-old who has been out of the closet for a decade, I still find myself playing a part.
I always need to have a reason to like musicals, an argument to hate soccer, a devastating bon mot to explain my aversion to manual labour (and my use of devastating bon mots). In truth, a lot of people hate DIY, but I’m expected to have an explanation — because if I don’t, it makes me a stereotype. And nobody wants to live up to a stereotype.
When Panti took to that stage, six foot something of Chanel and pizazz, what she was saying was: “Look at me, and listen to me — and yes, the two can coexist.” Oratory, power and revelation are not the confines of old men with pipes in their mouths.
The clip going viral was, then, a unique test of reporting — and by and large the test was passed. It’s not hard to find a drag queen delivering an epic put-down, even one that is politically charged and offers refreshing insight. But to have a drag queen speak honestly, openly and seriously, with only the occasional barb? Well that’s quite something. But again and again the piece was reported with just as much seriousness as if it had been the “safer” (though no less legitimate) LGBT face of Portia de Rossi or Neil Patrick Harris. Undoubtedly the juxtaposition of sight and sound gave the story a hook, but in discussing the ideas at play few people felt the need to comment on how Panti looked. It was also refreshing how easily commentators found it to switch pronouns when discussing Rory and Panti — a sign to trans people that someday the media might actually be able to get it right.
As O’ Neill explained on Today FM a few days ago, his appearance as Panti was somewhat accidental due to her need to be in her bar in full regalia only twenty minutes later. But the effect stands.
So much of the equal marriage debate has been framed as “give us equal rights — we’re just like you”. But the truth is that we are not just like you. Nobody is just like you. No marriage is like the next marriage, no family is like the next family, no person is the sum total of their sexuality, ethnicity or creed.
In the end, we grant equality not because it suits us, but because it is the right thing to do. True equality is about granting it to those we don’t care for.
When Panti graced that stage, she told us that the LGBT community can be granted equal rights without having to dilute our culture, our community, our individuality. The bravery required to come out, the tenacity to survive as an oppressed sub-culture, the humour to still laugh and love each other in the face of overwhelming odds — these are not gifts to be surrendered, these are traits to be celebrated.
We can be both. The sissy and accountant and footballer and leather sub and confidante. The bleached and bitch and butch and gentle soul.
To play the part, to check ourselves, to package our lives as acceptable — this will make this debate a net loss to Irish society. Because when one group has to sacrifice its traits to gain equality, it won’t be long before that domino falls on the heterosexual community.
The next year of debates should be marked by voices that reflect the true diversity of the lesbian, gay, trans and bisexual movement — and all those who fall on the queer spectrum. It shouldn’t be about us living up to the ideals of marriage; instead it should be about marriage living up to the ideals of us.
No right is more important than the citizens who partake in it.
No person is the sum total of their sexuality, gender or appearance.
And no-one, no matter how brash or bold or big or bouffanted, is undeserving of a voice.