Why is having fun in a world that despises you a radical act?

June 12, 2023

This week's guest is, the inimitable, Ms. Panti Bliss. Panti is considered to be Ireland’s foremost drag queen, “gender discombobulist” and “accidental activist.” Panti was the forerunner in Ireland's ‘Yes’ campaign for marriage equality and in February 2015 she took to the stage of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre to deliver a ten minute speech that was described as ""the most eloquent Irish speech"" in almost 200 years. It garnered support from RuPaul, Graham Norton, Stephen Fry, and Madonna. She is the recipient of a host of awards including the Award for contribution to Irish society - at the People of the Year Awards in 2014. In 2015 Panti’s alter-ego Rory O'Neill was awarded an honorary degree from Trinity College Dublin for his contribution to LGBTQ+ rights and marriage equality. In 2016, following a reported 160% increase in HIV positive tests in Ireland between 2005 and 2015, as an advocate for others and small business owner, she turned the basement of her self named Panti Bar into a HIV testing center in a bid to help protect a new generation of young gay men. Panti was most recently on the Irish version of Dancing with the Stars, where Panti, aka Rory, performed out of drag, making Irish TV history with Ireland's first same sex dance couple appearing on screens across the country. Join us where we’ll discuss Panti’s activism, advocacy, and contributions to the LGBTQ+ community in Ireland and beyond.

- Hello everyone. I am Chris Hyams, CEO of Indeed. My pronouns are he and him, and welcome to the next episode of "Here To Help." For accessibility, I'll offer a quick visual description. I am a middle-aged man with dark-rimmed glasses. I'm wearing a black T-shirt. Behind me is the North Austin skyline. At Indeed, our mission is to help people get jobs. This is what gets us out of bed in the morning and what keeps us going all day, and what powers that mission is people. "Here To Help" is a look at how experience, strength, and hope inspires people to want to help others. My guest today is the inimitable Panti Bliss. Panti is considered to be Ireland's most foremost drag queen, gender discombobulist, and accidental activist. Panti was the forerunner in Ireland's Yes Campaign for marriage equality, and in February 2015, she took to the stage of Dublin's Abbey Theater, to deliver a 10 minute speech that was described as the most eloquent, Irish speech in almost 200 years. It garnered support from RuPaul, Graham Norton, Stephen Fry, and Madonna. Panti is the recipient of a host of awards, including the Award for Contribution to Irish Society, at the People of the Year Awards in 2014. In 2015, Panti's alter-ego, Rory O'Neill was awarded an honorary degree from Trinity Dublin College for his contribution to LGBTQ+ rights and marriage equality. Being an advocate for others and a small business owner, in 2016, following a reported 160% increase in HIV positive tests in Ireland between 2005 and 2015, Panti turned the basement of her self-named Panti Bar into an HIV testing center, in a bid to help protect a new generation of young gay men. In October, 2014, Panti's memoir, "A Woman in the Making," was published, and her documentary "The Queen of Ireland" was released in 2015. Panti was most recently on the Irish version of Dancing with the Stars, where Panti, AKA Rory, performed out of drag, making TV history with Ireland's first same sex dance couple appearing on screens across the country. Today we'll talk about Panti's activism, advocacy, and contributions to the LGBTQ+ community in Ireland and beyond. Panti, thank you so much for joining me today.

- Thanks for having me. Delighted.

- As we were getting ready for this interview, someone shared a quote with me from Larry La Fountain-Stokes, who's a professor of Spanish American culture and women's and gender studies, at the University of Michigan. And Larry says, "Drag is likely as old as gender norms. "It's a part of the human condition." Can you talk about what drag performance means to you and how you became Panti Bliss?

- There isn't a single culture on the planet that doesn't have some form of drag, and gender discombobulation for performance reasons, or whatever. I got into it for lots of reasons, partly because it's stupid and fun. It allows you to dress up and be anything you want to be. There's a kind of in-built suspension of disbelief around drag. But for me, a large part of the reason why I got into it in the first place, apart from it being fun, and certainly a very large part of the reason why I'm still doing it is because, well, I was sort of angry about stuff when I was 19. When I was 19, homosexuality was a a literal crime in Ireland, and it wasn't decriminalized till I was 25 years old. 25, there's probably plenty of people on here who are 25. And the thing about drag is, it takes all of these things that as a young queer kid growing up, especially in a repressive society as Ireland was back in the 80s, all of this stuff that people tried to sneer out of you, or all of this stuff that people told you were weakness, all of this stuff that you were afraid of yourself. And it's turning it into something that's strong and powerful and beautiful and fun. And that's what I love about it. It's taking all this stuff that people try to shame out of you and instead you're throwing it back at them as strength and power and joy. So, that's was what attracted to me, to it in the beginning. Gender is a big thing and society makes gender a huge thing, and for a lot of people, their gender is super important to them, and each to their own. But one of the joys about drag is, you can just stop caring about that. In a way drag is literally refusing to be bound by all the gender norms that are put on you. And to do that in a fun, entertaining, often silly, sometimes deadly serious way. So, one of the joys for me of drag is just not caring about gendered anything. I put on what I think looks cute. And you may disagree, but it works for me. And whether this hair is codified as female, or male makes no difference to me. I just think it's pretty, so I'm going to wear it.

- There's a radical act in just wanting to be free and to not be bound in. And so, there's this, so much of what you do is entertainment, but it's also so clearly activism and drag queens have been leaders in the queer liberation movement from the very start. You have described yourself as a quote, "accidental gay rights activist." Can you talk about what you mean when you say that and about your journey from entertainment and expression into activism?

- When I was coming out in the 80s, just finding a single other queer person was a huge task. You needed to get Jessica Fletcher on the case. If I took the internet away from you and sent you into a city you didn't really know and said, "Find another person" that's difficult. And in 1987, they weren't even walking around, obviously being queer, they were all hiding. So, it took me ages to actually find other queer people. And when I did find them, because homosexuality was still a criminal offense, they were hidden away in these hidden basements and behind blackout curtains and all of that. And when I did find them, it was such a relief to be absolutely 100% sure that I actually, I wasn't alone. There are other people like me, and here they are dancing to the Pointer Sisters and they're living in this world that actually despises them at that time. But they were having fun and kissing under strobe lights and falling in love and all of that stuff. And it was so life-affirming to me. But it was also, in order to get to the stage then, to make these huge efforts to find other queer people, you're radicalized by the time you got to that point. You had to say, "Well actually all of the way the world "is organized is wrong, "because I feel absolutely fine about myself". And so the people that you met in these basements, they tended to be radicals, because just being there was a radical act. Having fun in a world that despises you is a radical act. Dancing in a world that wishes you were dead is a radical act. And the most radical act of all was refusing to be invisible. And one thing that drag queens aren't, is invisible. They're very visible. And the first time that I ever saw a drag queen, I was blown away because, she wasn't trying to blend into the background, she was all covered in sequins. She was big and bright and bold and colorful and she had a bloody spotlight, she was anti invisible. And, that was just beautiful to me. And, there's a real power in that to me.

- Drag clearly has gained, has gone more mainstream in recent years. And you have shows in the US like RuPaul's Drag Race. And what do you think that that increased visibility, what kind of impact has that had on the broader acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals?

- I'm actually very torn about it all. RuPaul Drag Race isn't just in America. They have it in France, in the UK and Australia and Thailand. And all the gays over here watch the American version too, drag is everywhere. It's never been more popular and more fashionable and everything. And on the one hand, wonderful, great, I think everybody should do drag. And it's given a lot of opportunities to people and everything. And the other hand, from a purely selfish point of view, I feel that it presents a very narrow definition of drag and it gives opportunities only in a very narrow frame. And I do wonder when something is this popular, this fashionable, this trendy, often the case is in a few years, it'll be considered incredibly naf and old hat and become more difficult to make a living from it maybe. But that aside, I think that I'm not surprised with the popularity of drag, because it is fun and stupid and people like fun stupid things. But I think, the explosion in popularity of drag, ran alongside the great advances that the queer community in general have made in society. And that's a beautiful thing to see. But as is so often the case, once you make strides, and once those strides become very visible, then there's always a pushback from the people who don't want you to make any strides. And right now, everywhere really, there's this intense pushback. It's obviously, very obvious in the US, it's also pretty obvious here on this side of the Atlantic. And that, it worries me. But on the other hand, I think maybe someone, my age have a slight advantage here to younger people, a sad advantage. But, I actually do remember when it was miserable to be queer before, or when people tried to make it be miserable. I've never been miserable for me, but people tried to make it so, and so I feel a bit like this stuff to me is, oh, we're back to this again. Well, I know this, I'll just button up and go at it again. But I think it's probably coming as quite a shock to some younger people who came of age at a time, when all of this stuff felt like a done deal and felt settled. And so, in a way, I wouldn't like to be young right now, young queer person right now and seeing all of this stuff for the very first time. A lot of it is just a rehash of stuff they used to say about us in the 1980s. We're a danger to children, full of disease, corrupting people, whatever. It's all exact same stuff that I would see on the front page of tabloid newspapers in the 80s, and especially during the AIDS crisis and everything. So, to me it's quite familiar and I think is less, slightly less terrifying to me than it might be if I was younger. But I do think it's absolutely dangerous times we're in, we can't be complacent about it. You can't let this stuff fester and grow and organize. You need to nip it in the bud and it's already past that stage.

- So, I want to talk about the campaign for Marriage Equality in Ireland, which passed in 2015. And you gave this incredible speech which has been viewed, I don't know how many, hundreds of thousands, or millions of times, about your experience of homophobia and oppression in Ireland and in particular the importance of using the word homophobe and homophobia and why it's so important for you to define it, and how you want people to think about it.

- It's important to listen to queer voices when defining homophobia. It's not up to other people to tell us what we feel oppressed by. It's up to them to listen to us explaining why we feel oppressed by certain things. When Ireland was having this deep, long conversation around these issues coming up to marriage equality referendum, we needed to focus on persuading people and getting them to go into a voting booth, on their own in secret and tick yes. And so, at that time, it was important for me to allow people to admit to themselves and to other people. Yes, I am a homophobe, or I have been and to have a conversation on that level, without it going immediately to red, because and actually that's an easy conversation to have, because the absolute God honest truth is, I'm sometimes homophobic, everybody is, I would argue, in the same way that everybody, if you're brutally honest with yourself, is sometimes a little racist because we have grown up, been raised, surrounded, every day of our whole lives by a society that is both homophobic and racist and many other isms. And the idea that you could go through that whole experience your whole life and somehow come out of it absolutely gleamingly clean and unaffected in any way by the homophobia that's been surrounding your whole life, is just, it's not credible. And I know that to be a fact, because I'm as queer as they come. And I have worked God damn hard over the last 40 years, or whatever, to extinguish any lingering tiny ember of homophobia that resides within me. And I know that still occasionally, I'll feel a little sting of it, some little feeling of shame about my own queerness, depending on the context, or whatever. There's so many tiny examples and thankfully they're tiny, you know, at 54. But, you jump into a taxi and the taxi driver, I'm not in all the gear and the taxi driver immediately asks me about the football, or something. And sometimes because it's easier just to nod and pretend I care, I just do. And then I think, why am I nodding and pretending to care about effing football? Like, I didn't jump in and immediately assume that he's a Dolly Parton fan like me and assume he was going to know about Dolly Parton's latest single. And I didn't then put him in the position where he has to explain, he doesn't know anything about Dolly Parton's latest single, so why can't I just say, "I have no interest in football. "I'm an absolute facist" And that is tiny, but there's a million examples of that and some of them are much bigger than that. And it took me years to get that stuff out of my system and years of hard work to get out of my system. So, I don't blame anyone for being sometimes a bit homophobic. They've been taught that since they were a toddler. What I blame them for is not caring, or not listening when you point out something homophobic. And when they're actively homophobic. I often during the referendum, you have to go the Irish way of doing these things is, we have referendums very regularly. We all know how they go. And part of it is literally you walk around and knock on people's doors and have conversations with them. That is how, so there'll be a giant campaign across to cover the whole country and thousands of volunteers and all. And so you knock on the doors of people who have all sorts of weird and different opinions and sometimes some old lady might answer the door and she's not actively homophobic in any way. She doesn't even think about it, or care and she likes the gay on her soap opera, or whatever. And I actually have no problem with that. She's a product of her culture and her time. But I certainly would like to have a conversation with her and hope to make her aware of that and to maybe change their mind about that. Queer people may not be in her life, but they should be. They make it more colorful, more interesting. So, that kind of passive homophobia, exists in the world. I hope we eventually erase it. But it's not keeping me awake at night. It is active homophobia that is not keeping me awake at night. People who are actively trying to make life harder for queer people, or actively trying to stop people being their own selves and living to their fullest. Those two things in my mind are entirely separate. And one needs to be tackled hard and immediately and the other, time and more interaction with the world might do it for us. So, yeah.

- What is your hypothesis about why people are so afraid?

- Intrinsically, we like to coordinate in groups and we think of our own group the in group and the out group. It's at the root of everything, racism, xenophobia, the lot. And it's true of sexuality too. And people who are not exposed to the ordinariness and sometimes boringness and sometimes fabulousness of queer people in their lives, you hold all of these weird ideas about them, because they're able to hold all of these weird ideas about them. Ireland changed so dramatically in its attitude and feeling around its queer community, in a relatively short period of time. I think it's shocking to outsiders. Like if you visited Ireland in the 1980 and you came back now, you'd be like wow, how the hell did this happen? So, I think this group mentality, where my group is better than all other groups, is at the root of so much of it. Also, it's a cliche to say people who have, issues around their own, internal gender, sexuality, whatever. And I don't just mean, people who are in the closet, every person sometimes finds things attractive that don't define them. And I think people who have been raised in a way to hate those tiny parts of themselves, or large parts of themselves, depending, they are the ones who do their utmost to reinforce these strict borders around sexuality and gender. They're so terrified of any crack in the dam, flooding themselves. So, I think that is often also at the root of these things and then also there's just this intrinsic quality that people have of wanting to protect their own power in society, or whatever. And they see queers as a threat to that. And queer people, simply by nature of existing in the world, are making people question many things about the way the world is structured. And so that can be a frightening concept for somebody who feels actually pretty comfortable in this world, or felt more comfortable in 1950 and doesn't like the way things are going. So, I think for all of these many and varied reasons, and people with different reasons come together, and unite over their one shared issue, which is hatred of queer people, or hatred of minorities, or whatever. And I think this is all so clear in the world at the moment. There's this huge, huge, massive attack on trans people in so many parts of the world now. And to see the bedfellows that are together in this anti-trans movement is so wild. There are people who call themselves feminists in bed with people who call themselves Nazis, in bed with people who call themselves proudly, call themselves racist, or whatever, and they've just bonded over this hatred of trans people. So, in the same way that love can be a wonderful, bonding factor, so too can hate, and that's why it worries me a lot and is on my mind a lot at the moment.

- I mentioned upfront that you have this, incredible opportunity to take part in the Irish Dancing with the Stars, and you were invited to participate as Panti. Can you talk about why it was so important to you to get to dance out of drag on national television?

- From the first conversation about it, it was very important to me that at least once, I took off all the drag and that there was a guy dancing with a guy, just like all of the other couples, no different in any way. I dunno, otherwise, it would've felt like, in a way it's almost easier to just digest Panti and a guy. Yes, I know there are plenty of queers on TV now and everybody has the internet and whatever. But it was still important to me that on a regular Irish family entertainment television show, that there was two boys just dancing like everybody else and we did a Paso, which is all passionate and no hiding it, we weren't doing a jokey comedy routine, or anything. So, that was super important to me and to do it as well my dance partner is a big handsome straight bloke from Ukraine. And that too is important to me too. Here's this big blokey straight bloke, who doesn't give a flying damn about it. He's so into it, whatever, just for the 'cause he is a dancer and it's fun. So, for all of those reasons I wanted that to be beamed into family living rooms at 6:00 PM on a Sunday. So yeah, that's why that was important to me.

- I want to talk about some of your involvement in other causes. You have been living with HIV since 1995, 27 years and we're about the same age. I'm 55 and so grew up in that era, I was coming of age when Rock Hudson was on the front page of the news in the US, that was the beginning of our awareness and we grew up testing. And at the time when you were diagnosed, that might have been considered a death sentence, but you take a pill a day, you're non-infectious, you have as much a chance of living long and happy life as anyone, yet still today in 2023 with all the news and information that we have, people still have this fear of getting tested.

- I was diagnosed in 95 and it was an absolute death sentence at the time. Like I was told at my first visit to the clinic that I probably had about five years and I was very aware of what those five years were going to look like and they weren't going to be pretty, they were going to be grim and marked and lonely and people would be afraid of you and all that stuff. But I was also very lucky to be diagnosed in 1995, 'cause I was right at the beginning of the development of really effective treatments. And, so for me it always felt like there was some progress being made in a sense. I left my first clinic visit with 38 different pills and potions and medicines in a big plastic carrier bag. And for the first couple of years, it was just taking all those things, was like a full-time job, 'cause some were six hours apart, some four hours apart, some eight hours apart, some with food, some without food, whatever, all this stuff. And so just organizing all of that was a full-time job. But then slowly over the years, then it was then you were down to 20 pills, then you were down to 15, then 12, then 10, then eight and seven, and the early ones, all of these horrible side effects and all of that. But for now, God, I think it's well over 10 years now, I've been taking one pill a day, no side effects. I take it in the morning, forget I've taken it. I have to have one of those little pill boxes like your granny, because if I don't, I'm like, did I take my pill? Because I just do it on automatic, like brushing your teeth, or whatever. And I just get on with my life and live it entirely normally. I'm as healthy as anybody else, I can't pass it on to anybody else. And so, it's been a a wild rollercoaster ride in a way. But I also feel very privileged and lucky, and the reason I like to talk about it is, because still today so many people have no idea of how much improvement treatment has come. I mean essentially it's a kind of cure, it's a manageable condition fully now and quite easily manageable. And I'm not saying that in order so people can go off and not be careful, be careful you don't want to get it. It's a pain in the ass. But I want people to understand that it's nothing to be afraid of. And you don't need to be afraid of people who are living with HIV. So I want everybody on the planet to get tested and find out. And then those who do test positive, don't panic. It's not the end of the world. Get on treatment and that's A, how you end the HIV epidemic entirely. If we had that scenario, there'd be no more new cases. And that is also giving people those facts, is also what erases the stigma. Gets rid of the stigma and stops people being afraid of going getting tested, or being ashamed to talk about it, or go to their doctor if they're worried about it, or whatever. Stigma is a real killer. And it's also the only real pain in the ass about living with HIV, because it does crop up even still, people who really should know better and still have these weird, outdated ideas about it and what it is and the reason for that actually is, unlike other conditions, or diseases, there wasn't a eureka moment where somebody, this is it, this the cure, or how to fix it. It was this slow process of refining these new drugs they invented and making them better and better and better until they got to the stage you are today. And so, there was never a day where people like, went to the newsagent and it splashed over all the front pages. That never happened, 'cause it was a slow, steady progression. And, that's sort of regretfully so, because that is why so much ignorance still exists around it and people still are so afraid of it. But yes, it's actually a good news story and yeah, go and get tested bitches.

- Well, I'm happily married for 30 years and I get tested every year as part of my annual physical, so anyone could definitely.

- Good for you.

- We are unfortunately at the end of time here. So, I'm going to ask the final question that I always ask, which is, given everything that that we've been through and certainly in light of this conversation, everything that is going on right now in the world, that could push people to the edge. What is it that does give you hope right now in this world today?

- So, young people always, give me hope for the future. They get dumped on a lot sometimes I think, "They're always out on their phones," or whatever. But I always find them actually to be much more actively engaged than their elders often were. And I think the younger generations are the ones that are going to save us from all this nonsense in the end. And cats. Cats give me hope, because they don't give a shit. They just have a fun time.

- Panti thank you so much for joining me today for sharing all of your wisdom and your attitude and humor about all of this.

- Don't forget the beauty.

- And fabulousness all together. And thank you for everything that you do for the world. It's such a pleasure to get to talk to you.

- Thanks for having me. It's been an absolute pleasure.