In a revelatory interview, Panti Bliss opens up about inclusion, exclusion and matters personal and private.
If British and American politics had a theme in 2016, it was “exclusion”. The Vote Leave campaign persuaded 52 percent of the British public to withdraw from the Europe Union. Donald Trump won the US election – if not the popular vote – by promising to build a wall between the United States and Mexico as well as ban immigration by Muslims.
The far right is on the rise in Europe. In Germany, the right-wing Alternative for Germany party won up to a quarter of the vote in state elections last March; Marine Le Pen and the National Front have been gaining support in France and it is conceivable that she’ll win the 2017 presidential election; and in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ anti-EU, anti-immigration, anti-Islam Party for Freedom is leading the polls ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections.
Against this backdrop, Ireland’s most glamorous activist and first lady of drag, Panti Bliss, has been spearheading Smirnoff’s “We’re Open” campaign which champions inclusivity. And given the political tide rising elsewhere, any celebration of difference – whether colour, creed, sexuality or gender – is to be welcomed.
While Panti is inextricably connected with the 2015 Marriage Equality campaign, she regards herself as an “accidental activist”.
“Although people think of me as a gay rights activist, my motivation was slightly different,” Panti says. “When I was growing up I felt that that I wasn’t included in Irishness. There was a sense that, in order to be really Irish or an Irish boy, you needed to be a particular kind of person – to like football, to love U2 – all these things that weren’t me. “I felt that my Irishness was called into question. And so, really, what I have been about is trying to expand the definition of Irishness to include people like me – to make a space for queer people.”
Although Irish society has all changed, changed utterly, with regards to our LGBTQ citizens, there are many areas where progress is still desperately needed.
“The obvious ones – bizarrely for Ireland – are around women and gender issues,” Panti says. “Ireland has always been seen as a country that, you know, almost mythologises the female and the Irish Mammy – and yet in so many ways we’ve been so poor about women’s rights.
“Another obvious one for me as someone who grew up surrounded by Travellers is Travellers’ rights. All my neighbours were Travellers, I went to school with Travellers, so I am very conscious of that also.”
Panti believes that the success of the Marriage Equality referendum has helped to energise other equality issues, such as the Repeal Movement. In particular it reminded us of the power of sharing stories.
“The referendum campaign was won by people telling their personal stories. In a sense it was like gay people coming out again. We’ve had a number of referendums about reproductive rights in my lifetime, but in all of those, the women who were actually affected never came forward. “Since the marriage referendum, we’ve seen lots of women come saying, ‘I’m a woman who has had an abortion’. Even if you are against abortion you have to grant that we can’t have a conversation about abortion without the people involved. It’s pointless.
“It’s funny, when you look back at all the things that we are now so ashamed of – the Magdalene Laundries, the abuses in the Church – part of the reason those things stayed under the radar is because the victims were never given a voice. I think it is really powerful for people to use their voice. No matter what happens, that alone is a positive change – that people feel they can come forward and tell their stories, even though it is a difficult thing to do.”
Panti has long been open about being HIV positive. While attitudes to HIV have come a long way, there is still a huge amount of stigma and shame around the disease.
“There was such incredible fear around Aids for twenty, thirty years, and so much of that fear lingers. As someone who has been living perfectly well with HIV for twenty years, it’s incredible to me that the stigma still hangs on.
“Some of it has to do with the sexual nature of it, and Ireland has a history of shaming people for their sexual behaviour. Every time I talk publicly about living with HIV, I know that over the next couple of weeks I will get an email from somebody living with HIV who has never told a single other person – not a family member, not a friend, nobody.”
Panti refuses to be ashamed about her HIV status.
“I’m not good at keeping secrets and I made a conscious decision early on that I was not going to be ashamed of it, or hide it from people. Trolls online will say I deserve it. But you can’t shame me for having HIV unless you have never made a mistake or taken a chance. Especially when it comes to sex and you’re driven by your hormones as nature has designed you to be — to eat, drink and fuck.”
Panti believes that a truly inclusive society is one in which all of us – including her – have to accept difference of opinion and adopt an attitude of ‘live-and-let-live’.
“It seems slightly airy fairy to say, ‘celebrate diversity’ – but it is not airy fairy, it’s essential. If everyone feels brow-beaten into acting the same, what you lose is the creativity of difference. I can image that you could have some member of Iona Institute reading this, rolling their eyes, and thinking I hate them – but that isn’t true at all.
“I think it is absolutely fine that there are evangelical Christians. I don’t care if they dislike homosexuality, or dislike drag queens or any other kind of person – I’m fine with that. I just don’t want them to try and make everybody else be the same as them. If you don’t like gay people, or trans people, or women or travellers, that’s your problem as long as you don’t try to structure society to exclude the people you don’t like. That’s the society I want: one that is inclusive enough to accommodate diversity in all of its brilliant complexity.”