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Panti Bliss and the war on drag and trans existence

One of the highlights of recent travel was seeing the Queen of Ireland, Panti Bliss, perform at the Soho Theatre. This esteemed drag performer was pushed to the fore of Ireland’s 2015 marriage equality campaign and came to lead it to its successful vote.

Rory O’Neill, her creator, describes her as a “giant cartoon woman,” but her most recent performance is less “transgressive, punk underground” Jessica Rabbit and more Grande Dame. Panti is the glamorous aunt you wish you had.

The story that unfolds over the “If these wigs could talk” show is brilliantly crafted. It is a stand-up routine and monologue that makes the audience fall in love with Panti before sharing what it was like to grow up illegally gay in Ireland, and so much more that you must experience without spoilers.

O’Neill began his adult life in art school, but Panti became his living, breathing, evolving work of art. Far more influenced by the vaudeville spirit of British drag and the oral tradition of Irish drag than the glamorous and polished version commonly seen from the USA, Panti has a long history of outrageousness. O’Neill’s creation has also done more than most of her compatriots to foster the embrace of LGBTQAI+ existence in Ireland. Her Noble Call at the Abbey Theatre is one of her most, and justly, famous contributions.

In the documentary about Panti, Queen of Ireland, O’Neill describes the marriage equality campaign as the final battle for equality even though, at the time, he felt uncertain that the Queer world needed this badge of bourgeois normality. What O’Neill knew is that the worst brute could marry, but somehow Queer people were not considered worthy.

It is deeply frustrating that this recent achievement of legal equality in 2015 in Ireland and the USA, and 2017 in Australia, is not the final battle after all. Queer people are once more at the barricades – if they are paying attention – as the Christofascists emanating out of America and Europe lead the battle to erase LGBTQIA+ existence.

The ultraconservatives made it clear at the time that the sky would fall if access to marriage was broadened to same-sex couples. In fact, the sky remained in place, but the billionaire-funded groups that mobilised against extending access to marriage then are now funding the fight to ensure only “traditional” gender and sexuality are legal.

Their initial targets are an intentional conflation of two different categories of people: drag performers and trans people.

Trans people are their gender. Drag, by contrast, is a performance art. In mainstream representation it is largely carried out by cis gay men, but many drag performers and traditions are trans. Performative gender such as drag is at least as old as the theatre itself. And trans existence pervades history and societies; scientific research is illustrating that gender is much more complex than conservative faux-science likes to pretend.

Drag, however, can be outrageous and sexy. Trans people are a tiny minority and can be very visible making them an easy target for cowards. Fewer people know a trans person than know lesbian and gay people. All of these factors enable propaganda manipulating confusion to find fertile soil. Cis people, firmly embedded in their birth-allocated sex, can find it impossible to understand gender dysphoria.

This makes it easy for Christofascists to combine these two categories with all the lies and myths that were told to keep gay men persecuted. None of these categories are dangerous to women or children. Groomers and pedophiles are found in churches, scouts and youth groups, not at drag story hour. The primary threat to women, children – and trans people – remains bad cis men.

Australia has not fully descended into the US attack on LGBTQIA+ people broadly and the UK’s persecution of trans people. The fact that Neo Nazis have joined the women pretending to support women by demonising another vulnerable group alienates most Australians from this toxic bigotry. We cannot, however, be complacent: both Media Watch and 4 Corners recently platformed people of suspect reputation.

The right is more cunning than the centre and left. It sees that history is bending towards diversity and inclusion; it’s determined to fight that development with every word, act and dollar. It coopts the language of rights while aiming to rob everyone except themselves of rights. It exploits the media’s attempts to play fair and balanced by promoting disinformation-heavy bigotry and exterminationism as just another perspective.

Organisations in Australia illustrate the international blurring of goals in their efforts to drive us towards ultra-conservative social positions. The Australian Marriage Alliance body converted its pre 2017 focus on defeating marriage equality to its new manifestation – Binary Australia – which campaigns against any blurring of strict male and female categories.

Citizen Go has recently begun to include Australia in its global far right campaigns. It is a Spanish ultra-conservative Christian platform designed to counter progressive petition sites like Avaaz, or Get Up. Its funding and board boast a grim roster of figures. Its site shows that it is combining campaigns against the “UN’s LGBT agenda” with fighting against the Voice to Parliament (alongside other ultra-conservative Christian bodies).

Far right groups are eager to use unsuspecting women as gateways to their brutally patriarchist ideology to broaden support. We saw women drawn into the space over covid, combining concern about pandemic health measures with conspiracy stories of tunnels full of abducted children being farmed for hormones. These issues have been subsumed into a campaign based on disinformation about trans healthcare. These women often do not realise that their own human equality and independence is threatened by these far-right fellow travellers.

In looking back at the Irish marriage equality debate, Rory O’Neill joked that he hoped Queer people “don’t end up becoming as boring as everybody else.” The frightening developments that dominate the discussion now make that moment seem a golden age of acceptance. Panti Bliss is asking you not to allow these forces to win, driving us back into the dark ages of persecution of LGBTQIA+ people.

It’s now up to the rest of us to become radical, resistant and irritating. Don’t let the Christofascists drive Queer people back towards the disdained fringe, to exile, to suicide. Whether you are standing up for people’s right to live their gender or embrace their art, you need to be out there standing against the threat alongside those under attack.


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  1. Phil Pryor

    “Whitey christofascists” as outlined here, or in any case, orthodox right wing conservative controllers in advertising, politics, media, money mining, actual mining, manufacturing, military, all want the old orthodoxy of men, women, virginity (whoa there) , marriage, housing, utensils, electronics, furniture, mortgages, debts.., all the MONEY and control; and, when kiddies come along, pets, toys, bigger vehicles, hoidays, all that MONEY and control. Different people, (hello) are too different, not reliable in the gospel of making MONEY out of people’s hides. There’s nothing queer about money, if you get it. You’ve arrived…

  2. Lucy Hamilton

    Well said, Phil.
    I wanted to leave out gender dysphoria as an overly reductive and often medicalised sense of what being trans is, but it is more useful in that spot. For all us allies there is a lot to learn about the much more complex business of gender.

  3. Clakka

    Hear hear. What is it with monoculturists and nonsense CIS-binary-onlyists?

    Seems as they strive for non-existent perfection, their fear and paranoia evolves from the ignorance of the unread, and dogma and linguistic revisionism from those that make profits by championing often rewritten arcane political tales guaranteeing redemption from their own sins (aka assuaging their guilty conscience). Pyramid profiteering.

    That they cannot mind their own business is patently obvious, that they remain behind their own selected and intractable mask likely irritates their soul, that they judge on the basis of what they don’t know and don’t seek to understand is no surprise, and that they then bring all their deficits to a collective phalanx of destructive points minding everyone else’s business is the height of manic bullying cowardice.

    In most things I remain tolerant and allow myself to dwell with doubts as I pursue a proposition. However faced with such intolerant cowardice of bullies, they can expect from me sardonic short shrift and ostracisation followed by wariness.

  4. Andrew Smith

    Good article. Too much corrupt nativist Christian patriarchal authoritarian agitprop, is imported from the US under various guises, crossing seemingly unrelated yet carefully curated themes, interests and obsessions, but always seems to lead back to 18-19th ideology and 1930s Germany which was obsessed about solutions…… bit cleverer these days trying to influence (increasingly more) ageing voters…

    Issue for normal conservatives or the centre right, parties being dragged so far out to extremism etc., how do they paddle back to the centre and win elections fairly, or implement permanent changes a la SCOTUS, Voter ID/suppression etc.?

  5. wam

    As pops up in the morning shows, Australian schools(mostly private and very expensive) have long been and still are famous for bullying and poofter bashing gangs. A recent PM is said to have been a Jesuit gang member. For sensitive, clever, soft looking boys, without a big cousin, school yards and weak teacher’s classrooms have always been unpleasant places where secret punches, trippings, pinching and various tortures like chinese burns were rife. A few years ago a homophobic ultra conservative couple, up on holiday, were often engaged in conversation with a waiter at our morning coffee stop. One repeating topic was mardigras and I was impressed at their patient listening. But I was truly amazed at their acceptance of him after he showed us the pictures of him in the costume that won the darwin drag queen competition. It is so trite but they were surprised how nice and ordinary he was.
    I think the homophobia is too ingrained for the husband to change and the wife has never been seen to think for herself in social, political nor fiscal situations.. But they are in their mid 70s so who knows??

  6. Terence Mills

    Men in Drag has long been a feature of our way of life and particularly in our theatrical history much more so than women dressing as men. In Shakespearean times and through most of the 16th and early 17th centuries, the churches deemed that only men could tread the boards and female roles were, of necessity, taken by men and boys.

    It wasn’t until the reign of Charles II of England, in the latter part of the 17th century that the rules were relaxed to allow women to play female roles on the London stage, reflecting the French fashion of the day and Charles’ continental upbringing. The convention of men routinely playing female roles diminished but clearly didn’t disappear.

    The British love of pantomime dames still sees the grotesque female roles – ugly sisters and stepmother in Cinderella for instance – played by men. Who can forget the cheeky and mischievous (Sir) Ian McKellen who after playing the outrageous Widow Twankey in Aladdin was quoted as saying ‘you haven’t lived until you’ve seen my Twankey !’

    Oddly, in British pantomime the chivalrous male prince charming will still frequently played by a young woman – go figure.

    My favourite on the local scene is Shane Jenek, better known under the stage name Courtney Act, who as an Australian drag queen, combines good looks and grooming with a sharp intellect that allows her to make a colourful and intelligent contribution on shows such as the ABC’s The Drum and One plus One

    We have even had RuPaul’s drag-race down-under : The highlight evidently was an Aboriginal drag queen calling out a white drag queen for cultural appropriation by appearing in ‘blackface’.

    And then we have Priscilla !

  7. Harry Lime

    I’m still reeling from the name’Panti Bliss’,which has been pin balling around the inside of my skull like an acid trip.The only thing I’m sure of, is I haven’t seen any for many a moon.Agree with the article ,though.

  8. Lucy Hamilton

    Panti had a different name originally, Harry, but the Japanese audience (because her creator, like so many gay Irish men, exiled himself) couldn’t pronounce her & her fellow performer’s names. They renamed themselves as a duo Candy Panti, but the audience misunderstood and they were given the names as separate identities. It’s pretty hilarious as a name. Follow the link in the piece to her Noble Call speech. It’s terrific.

    Great points, Wam.

    Don’t forget Ancient Greek theatre, Terence. Medea and Antigone were male under the masks. Then lots of other cultural traditions too.

    Thanks for the terrific comments Andrew & Clakka

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