- Guerrilla Glamour:The Queer Tactics of Dr. Panti Bliss
Setting the Scene
Drag queen Panti Bliss should be conservative Ireland's worst gay nightmare. Erstwhile organizer of kink nights, openly HIV positive, landlady of a Northside Dublin gay bar, and author of a memoir detailing performance art that involves pulling interesting things from her anus, Bliss strays very far from what some queer theorists (e.g., Butler, "Kinship"; Warner; Duggan; Mulhall) consider assimilationist political strategies—that is, from gaining rights through modeling gay lifestyles on heterosexual ones rather than through challenging heterosexual institutions. Yet in 2014, following a series of high-profile media and legal events, Bliss became a unifying figurehead for Ireland's marriage-equality efforts, a self-professed accidental activist whose efforts were crucial to securing a resounding 62 percent victory for the Yes Equality campaign in Ireland's referendum on same-sex marriage.
This article draws on performativity theory to argue for the counterintuitive position that it is precisely Bliss's status as an ostentatious drag queen that renders her palatable to a heterosexist and homophobic society. It analyzes Bliss's now iconic "Noble Call" speech from the stage of the Abbey Theatre on 1 February 2014 as well as the messaging tactics of the Yes Equality campaign in order to contend that drag provides Bliss permission to speak denied to everyday queer behaviors and identities. This analysis complicates assumptions that the success of the marriage equality referendum signals the absence of societal homophobia; it also makes the case for drag—the politics of which are often called into question1— [End Page 104] as a potentially powerful subversive strategy in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights.
Bliss had an impressive history of LGBTQ+ rights work in Ireland prior to the referendum (Walsh, Queer Performance 21–45), but her activism with regard to marriage equality began with an appearance on RTÉ's The Saturday Night Show, hosted by Brendan O'Connor on 11 January 2014. Bliss had been invited to perform a drag number, with a chat as her alter ego Rory O'Neill scheduled afterward. In her autobiography Woman in the Making she explains that she went to the studio with "nothing more serious on [her] mind than what colour lipstick [she'd] wear" (O'Neill 225). Since the November 2013 government announcement that a marriage-equality referendum would be held in 2015, LGBTQ+ rights had been a frequent topic in Irish social and political discourse, but concerted campaigns for and against marriage equality were yet to get underway. It was no surprise, therefore, that following Bliss's performance O'Connor asked O'Neill if much had changed in Ireland with regard to social attitudes to LGBTQ+ people. O'Neill replied positively but pointed out that columnists still wrote "horrible and mean" things about gay people in newspapers (Daily Motion). After O'Connor encouraged O'Neill to identify these people, O'Neill named the Irish Times columnists Breda O'Brien and John Waters as well as the Iona Institute, a right-wing, predominantly Catholic think-tank with prominence in Irish media. O'Connor introduced the word "homophobia" into the conversation, attesting, "I wouldn't have thought John Waters was homophobic." O'Neill explained that homophobia can be subtle and gave a personal definition of the term, saying that anyone who argues that gay people should be treated differently from others or that gay relationships are less valuable than straight relationships is homophobic (Daily Motion). Notably, it was O'Neill as opposed to Bliss who made these remarks—the conventionally handsome, clean cut, (comparatively) polite, and just a little camp O'Neill, whose opinions on homophobia were to cause such consternation.
In response to the Saturday Night Show interview, five individuals—O'Brien, Waters, Iona Institute founder David Quinn, and two [End Page 105] other unnamed members of the Institute—initiated legal proceedings against O'Neill and RTÉ for defamation, while a further Iona member initiated proceedings solely against RTÉ. RTÉ removed the interview from its website, and two weeks after the original broadcast O'Connor issued a live statement distancing RTÉ from the content of the interview and apologizing for O...