It’s Not Just What He Said, It’s How She Said It

PantiThe 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.

Thanks Panti.


About alfla

Playwright, screenwriter, sometime improv enthusiast and full-time television lover. You know, in THAT way.
This entry was posted in LGBT Rights, Sober Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

53 Responses to It’s Not Just What He Said, It’s How She Said It

  1. Reblogged this on sergiokleinmonster and commented:
    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.
    Thanks Panti. ‪#‎PantiGate‬

  2. One of the most enjoyable and profound pieces that I have had the pleasure to read. Congratulations on a truly brilliant piece.

  3. Pingback: It’s Not Just What He Said, It’s How She Said It |

  4. cathie says:

    really fantastic and so refreshing to read. thank you.

  5. Denis Mahoney says:

    Great article thankyou. It addresses a real concern of pressure to surrender parts of our identities to achieve equality. I feel a great sense of relief in how you articulate that we don’t in fact need to surrender the things that feel good,unique and special about who we are.

  6. Dermot Ryan says:

    Well said love it 😃🌟

  7. segmation says:

    Isn’t what she said always right?

  8. ksthompsonauthor says:

    I’m a straight white woman who (because of homophobia and racism) is often embarrassed to be a straight white woman, odd as that may sound. I don’t comprehend bigotry and bullying at all. Perhaps that is because I was the victim of bullying and that gives me the choice to either become a bully or embrace compassion. I chose the latter.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and congrats on being “Freshly Pressed”!

    • alfla says:

      Thanks for reading! I think everyone has that minor sense of embarrassment if you don’t tick the boxes — I may be gay, but I’m a white male — but the truth is if you’re acknowledging what might be implicit biases, treating other people kindly, and being politically conscious, you’re fine. We can get caught up in guilt but it doesn’t serve any purpose.

  9. Congrats on being “freshly pressed” !!! 🙂

  10. objectifemme says:

    Thanks for your post! I especially appreciated your mention of how everyone (LGBTQIA+++ individuals included) have been culturally conditioned to have automatic and inherent trans*phobia and homophobia, which can make self-love extremely difficult.

    • alfla says:

      Thanks for the comment and thanks for reading. That’s one thing that Rory commented on which I think has been a little bit lost – in his original (controversial) interview he talked about homophobia and racism similarly, saying we all have these things in ourselves, and the best thing to do is acknowledge them and try to deal with them.

  11. dlg1990 says:

    I absolutely love what you said about how the debate has been framed as “give us equal rights we’re just like you” And you go on to say that nobody is just like you, no marriage is like the next. You are completely right. The debate should be about your own ideals, morals, and strengths to make a marriage and family work. Brilliant.

    • alfla says:

      This is why I find the “institution” of marriage such a strange idea, since it’s one of the most variable traditions in human culture. Never mind how marriage has changed over the centuries, marriage changes from house to house, person to person. “Protecting” marriage is like trying to “protect” literature by trying to ban books you don’t like (even though you don’t HAVE to read them anyway).

      • The idea of marriage as an ‘arbitrary social construct’ is unconvincing. A glance at marriage through time and across cultures may suggest variation, but what changes is really only the ceremonial. Anthropologists tell us that in almost every culture, ever, marriage has had the primary purpose of legitimising reproduction and formalising inheritance. Correspondingly, marriage has been a condition granted only to heterosexual unions, i.e., those naturally ordered towards producing offspring. This is why marriage is a legislative issue at all, not because the government seeks to ratify our desire for love and commitment, but because it has a responsibility towards children. Marriage is thus primarily a formulation of the mating pair bond; it has an objective basis in our anthropology and biology (Mummy, Daddy and Maybe-Baby). Same-sex relationships to not have this intrinsic nature, nor the same primary purpose. This is why same-sex marriage is not about welcoming a new minority into the marriage fold, but re-defining marriage completely. To use Alfla’s analogy, reading this book will be compulsory for the whole of society.

      • alfla says:

        Actually, far more than the ceremonial changes across cultures and history: there are many cultures who have had same-sex marriages, group marriages, even marriages between the living and the dead. I completely understand the historical need in many cultures for marriage to ensure reproduction and inheritance, but like many things the historical need and the current need are different. The vast, vast majority of marriages in most Western countries take place for reasons of love and a desire to build a life together (which may or may not include children). To label them mainly reproductive or inheritance bonds does a dis-service to this. There are other laws which were designed to ensure reproductive bonding — such as the ban on divorce, restricting married women from working, and bans on contraception. Similarly, inheritance is the reason why sons are often given automatic preferable inheritance rights over daughters. These are not good laws. Instead, we should look at the present time for what marriage means — a commitment between two people, which may or many not include reproduction.

        And, frankly, with the planet as over-populated as it is I wouldn’t be jumping on the freight train towards focusing solely on reproduction any time soon.

        Also, don’t quote the words “arbitrary social construct” if nobody here actually used them.

  12. ladynao says:

    Legal. Union. A union between two people regardless of gender. This is what we should be fighting for. The problem with fighting for gay marriage is that some define marriage as a union between a male and a female. If you call it a legal union, that’s no longer an issue. Or you could just make up a new word rather than marriage, idunno.

    But anyway, I absolutely agree that no one should be judged by their sexuality, gender or how they look.

    • alfla says:

      I agree, although my thinking is the word means something — whether you believe in marriage or not, it’s still unsettling if one part of the population gets a different name for something. My hypothetical is always this: imagine if women had the vote, the exact same vote as men, but it was called the LadyVote Plus. It might not be different on paper, but calling it something different shows what you think of the people involved.

      • ladynao says:

        I understand that. But I was thinking it might be more like how male cats are neutered and female cats are spayed, they just have different names for different things.

  13. ladynao says:

    please don’t reply to my comment above, I don’t want an argument.

  14. This was beautifully done. I’ve never heard of Panti before today. I am a straight woman who believes in fairness and equality. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. He/she delivered that message brilliantly.

    • alfla says:

      I believe it’s “she” for Panti (the character) and “he” for Rory (the performer), though the lines are obviously quite blurred! Thanks for reading.

  15. incaunipocrit says:

    Reblogged this on The International Blogspaper.

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  17. jyotistilbon says:

    Reblogged this on jyotistilbon.

  18. haridasgowra says:

    Thanks! this was really gr8! Brilliant post and videos!
    “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.”


  19. Ashley Sara says:

    Reblogged this on rabbitwillrun and commented:
    Thank you Panti, and thank you to who wrote this remarkable article !

  20. truth42 says:

    Beautifully written. Ian x

  21. haridasgowra says:

    Good writing! Thanx 4 Sharing this!

  22. acposts says:

    Reblogged this on ACP.

  23. blackbass2 says:

    Reblogged this on blackbass2 and commented:

  24. hellokalykitty says:

    Beautifully written and great message 🙂

  25. Reblogged this on beccalovesjelly and commented:
    So beautifully written and expressed.
    Equal Rights for ALL.

  26. skinnyuz2b says:

    You said it. Everyone is different, and that difference is not defined by their race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, etc. Viva la difference!
    How many wars are started and continued because the other side is ‘different’?

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  28. wow, Not Just What He Said, It’s How She Said It. you give an inspiration \*o*/

  29. Reblogged this on Wondertwisted and commented:
    Just found this gem about how the march toward civil rights can mean assimilation. And how assimilation can splash a whole lot of vanilla on our big, bad rainbow flag.

  30. This is fluffing fantastic. Just when I think all the refreshing thoughts on marriage equality are drying out and cracking a little, up pops a nice new bouquet of ideas. Let’s watch them grow, yes?

  31. vonsoundso says:

    Reblogged this on Stuff that happens and commented:
    I raise my hat to Panti Bliss, who delivered a woderful speech about equality.Not just marriage equality but human equality.

  32. godtisx says:

    No one.

    “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.”

    I hope this leaves with everyone who clicks out. It’s not about delivery, appearance, etc.,

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  34. Shaun VA says:

    Reblogged this on The Real GAze Of Melbourne and commented:
    She put’s it very well! I think we can all relate to the content of this video!

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