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, Change.org 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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