‘Irishness’ now elastic enough to stretch around a blond drag queen
When I was growing up, Irishness seemed to be a very rigid concept – we’ve changed so much
Panti Bliss (and Rory O’Neill): “Growing up in 1970s and 1980s Mayo, being an Irish boy meant ticking a number of boxes: you had to like football, you had to like U2 . . . People like me were not part of what being Irish was supposed to be . . . but in a short space of time we have achieved so much.” Photograph: Maxwellphotography.ie
Panti Bliss (and Rory O’Neill): “Much of the referendum campaign was driven by the energy and creativity of young people, who upended the lazy stereotype of them as uninterested or disengaged. In them there is the potential for huge change.” Photograph: Maxwellphotography.ie
My project has never been about gay rights per se. What I was really interested in was making the definition of Irishness more elastic. Elastic enough to stretch around people like me. When I was growing up, Irishness seemed to be a very rigid concept, and one that didn’t have a place for someone like me. It excluded people like me and I wanted to be included.
Growing up in 1970s and 1980s Mayo, being an Irish boy meant ticking a number of boxes: you had to like football, you had to like U2 . . . and I don’t tick many of those boxes. People like me were not part of what being Irish was supposed to be and as such I always felt my Irishness was somehow suspect.
But I don’t now. I’m still amazed at the journey this country has gone on in my lifetime. Less than 25 years ago it was still illegal to be homosexual, but in a short space of time we have achieved so much. Ten years ago if you spoke about civil partnership let alone marriage equality, you would have been laughed at. And look at us now.
Our story offers hope
These days I’m lucky enough to get to travel widely with my work, often to places where inclusivity is celebrated, but also to places where it’s very difficult, and often dangerous, to be different. In June, while visiting Sarajevo, I was reminded of the country I grew up in, the Ireland of the 1980s. A country I ran from clutching my heels and wigs.
In a place like Sarajevo, where it is dangerous to be LGBTI, our story, Ireland’s story, is an inspiration to a community that feels embattled. I tell them my story, the story of a misfit and outsider who somehow became mainstream – even “establishment” – in a corset and bone-crushing high heels, and they delight in it. Our story gives them hope that they can achieve similar change.
When I was a college student in Dublin in the early 1980s, nightlife saved me. Not that there was much of a nightlife at the time. Going out mostly meant a basement restaurant on Leeson Street that pushed back the tables after midnight and served up a grey chicken curry between the chart hits. But there were pockets of an underground nightlife for people like me. The queers and the misfits and the nuts with homemade haircuts found our own basements, and made them our own. In places like Sides on Dame Street, the quirky, the odd and the different came together and celebrated the night together. In these dance-sweaty basements we made a home where the misfits finally fitted.
Where difference is an asset
Nightlife liberated me. It set me free and gave me a community where I felt I absolutely belonged, an experience that was utterly novel for me at the time.
Nightlife in Ireland has evolved dramatically since then; its citizens an eclectic mix of genders, races and backgrounds. Where being odd is celebrated and difference is an asset.
A career as a drag performer was never my goal. It was something I did because it was fun, and transgressive and punk. But I never dreamed it could be a career. I paid the rent by waiting tables in Temple Bar or selling jeans in Makullas on Suffolk Street. And there weren’t many drag queens around. Today you can’t open a door in Dublin without hitting a “baby drag” trying to make it as a drag performer. Ireland is now a place where kids think drag is a legitimate career choice.
Society in good hands
Ireland is a different place to the one I grew up in. Yet while so much has been achieved, there is still a lot of work to do in so many areas: gender, race, disability, Travellers’ rights. But I think our society is in good hands with young people today. When the marriage equality debate started, we asked ourselves a very simple idealistic question – do you believe in equality? – and young people answered with a resounding “Yes”.
And much of the referendum campaign was driven by the energy and creativity of young people, who upended the lazy stereotype of them as uninterested or disengaged. In them there is the potential for huge change.
Today, Irishness is more elastic than when I was growing up. There are fewer boxes to tick. Or maybe more. But either way, Irishness is now elastic enough to stretch around a 6ft drag queen with brassy blonde hair that people in this country have unexpectedly embraced. Let’s be honest, I was never going to tick the “liking football” box – I’m still a bit more Eurovision than the Euros. But I don’t think I’d be unwelcome in the terraces any more if I decided to give football another chance.
Panti Bliss, Ireland’s foremost drag queen, performer and activist is working with Smirnoff on the ‘We’re Open’ campaign