Panti Bliss strips down homophobia, performance, and gender identity

Emer O’Toole and Miss Panti Bliss to host talk at Concordia

“Your name is knickers?!”

This is the reaction “accidental activist” Rory O’Neill usually receives from people when introduced to his notorious drag queen alter ego, Miss Panti Bliss.

Though, there aren’t many people left in Ireland who aren’t already familiar with O’Neill and Panti. He skyrocketed to fame last year after he appeared on Ireland’s Saturday Night Show and publicly called out certain right-wing Irish newspaper columnists for being homophobic. The ensuing fallout prompted one of the largest national public debates about homophobia and a call for action within the gay community, which led directly into the upcoming marriage equality referendum taking place in May.

Yet, according to O’Neill, the whole hullabaloo, now cheekily referred to as Pantigate, was just a case of putting his foot in his mouth.

“I say I’m an ‘accidental activist’ because I seem to get myself into a lot of trouble, and in order to get myself out of trouble I have to defend myself,” he said. “[Pantigate] became a big story, with the columnists suing me and the broadcaster, until eventually the lawyers for the broadcaster decided to cut their losses and pay out, and that turned what had been a relatively small story into a whole discussion that involved everything from homophobia and how Ireland treats gay people, to censorship, to freedom of speech issues.”

Canadian supporters flocked to Concordia University last year to hear O’Neill, as Panti, in discussion with Concordia Canadian-Irish Studies professor Dr. Emer O’Toole, who specializes in culture and performance arts with an interest in gender issues.

“We were really bouncing off of the Pantigate scenario, and how troubling it is how straight people could sue gay people for using the word homophobic,” said O’Toole. “I know that Panti/Rory was overwhelmed with the Canadian interest in Irish queer stuff.”

On Feb. 16, Panti will be back at Concordia to once again sit down with O’Toole as part of The Globe and Mail “Thinking Out Loud” series across Canada.

“We’ll be discussing gender identity, how it’s constructed, how we experience it, whether or not there’s something essential about gender identity,” said O’Toole about what’s on tap for this year’s discussion.

For O’Neill, gender and performance are inextricably linked. As Panti, O’Neill operates under many labels: spectacle, nonconformist, activist, performer, other. This makes him privy to all sorts of judgments and confidences, for better or for worse.

“When I’m dressed as a giant cartoon woman in public, people feel very free to say things to me that they would never say to me dressed as a guy,” he said.

This includes having total strangers coming up to Panti at a bar, and spilling their deepest, darkest secrets. Secrets like admitting to having had sex with their cousins.

O’Neill says that strangers’ openness with him is all to do with the deep roots of misogyny in our society. People see a man dressed as a woman and think that the man is demeaning himself in some way. In the case of dressing in exaggerated drag gear, this seems to invite people to see O’Neill and other drag queens as less-than-real caricatures or spectacles of people.

“They feel I’m someone they can just tell this secret to and it’s safe. I’ve demeaned myself so I can’t be judgmental or horrified,” he said. “That also plays into how people allow drag queens to say things to them that they would never allow a guy in a suit to say. The way they let puppets or cartoons say things that people can’t get away with.”

The same theory is more controversial on the flip side of the coin, when women dress as men, or adopt non-conforming gender traits.

“When a woman dresses masculinely, people give her a bit more respect, in an odd way because it makes them uncomfortable, but they see it as her elevating herself somehow,” mused O’Neill.

O’Toole, however, had a personal experience in this realm when she decided to forgo removing body hair to challenge society’s notions of femininity, and wound up enjoying her 15 minutes of fame because of it.

“All you’re really doing is saying ‘this convention is arbitrary and it doesn’t have to be this way’ but the amount of shock and irrational anger that people display to your transgression can be really quite overwhelming,” she said. “When this constructed social norm becomes such a part of what we understand as feminine that we actually see women as disgusting and abhorrent if we don’t conform to it.”

In any case, the upcoming discussion between Bliss and O’Toole is sure to tackle the broad implications and tiniest nuances of all that makes up gender identity and performance.

So, the final question remains, why did O’Neill name himself after an undergarment? Again, it was all a bit of an accident.

“When I was in Japan I was in a double act with an American drag queen named Lurlene, and I was using the name Leticia. Japanese people have great difficulty with the ‘L’ and ‘R’ sounds, so being called Lurlene and Leticia was just really awful, nobody could ever remember our names, nobody could ever pronounce them,” he said. “So we decided we would pick a group name, and we wanted to use English words because that was sort of our schtick in Japan, but they should be words that people could remember. So the name we chose was ‘Candy Panty’ because candy and panty are both words that had been adopted into the Japanese language. But what happened was that people just started calling her Candy and me Panty. I used to wear very short skirts at the time, I was very young. So eventually we were called Candy and Panty, and the name stuck. I guess it’s a bit embarrassing, but it’s hard to forget!”

Unforgettable—that is one thing that O’Neill, as Panti or as himself, certainly is.

Join Emer O’Toole and Miss Panti Bliss on Feb.16 at 7 p.m in the D.B Clarke Theatre (Hall Building). A signing of O’Neill’s bestselling autobiographical book, Woman in the Making will take place after the talk.

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