- 24 Jun 23
As part of our Pride 2023 celebrations, we're looking back through the archives at a selection of classic interviews. In this piece, originally published in 2014, Graham Norton spoke out about 'Pantigate', and discussed same-sex marriage ahead of the historic referendum.
Originally published in Hot Press in 2014...
“I’m not registered to vote in Ireland, but I do pay the licence fee there and I’m fucking furious that some of my money has gone to these idiots. RTÉ settling wasn’t just gutless, it was absolutely moronic!”
Graham Norton can be acerbic when he’s on the telly, but rarely do you find him spitting nails as he is today, discussing the Miss Panti Bliss homophobia controversy and RTÉ’s decision to reach for the cheque-book rather than trusting in the courts to decide whether the use of the description ‘homophobic’ was libellous or not. Within minutes of seeing Panti’s subsequent Abbey Theatre speech, in which the drag queen made a powerful call for true equality for gays, the star man at the BBC was on Twitter alerting his 662k followers to the speech. “Gay, straight, undecided – everyone should watch this,” he urged, before concluding: “Brilliant! Panti’s Noble Call...”
The A-List celebrity support doesn’t end there with Stephen Fry encouraging: “Do watch the way she exposes the evil”; Dara Ó Briain opining: “Nothing wrong with calling something bigoted. It’s often a fair point. And it’s up to them to show it isn’t. Denying rights on basis of orientation alone is homophobic, as it would similarly be racist”; RuPaul enthusing: “That is one of the most powerful speeches I’ve ever heard. Bravo!”; and Ms. Ciccone’s publicist announcing: “Madonna knows him and supports what he’s doing.”
“It’s not all cute kittens, sunrises and selfies,” Norton says of the worldwide wave of Twitter love for Panti and the subsequent 503,596 – and rising! – YouTube views of her Abbey call-to-arms for equal rights. Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole has gone as far as describing the speech as “the most important Irish speech since Daniel O’Connell was in his prime.”
Was Panti/Rory O’Neill on Graham’s radar prior to the Saturday Night Show brouhaha?
“I knew of him through his brother Lorcan who’s a lovely fella but not a drag queen,” Graham laughs. “It’s a very sane speech, which exists outside of the current argument. You don’t need to know about all the RTÉ toings and froings to understand it. Rory’s a smart chap and it was perfectly pitched.”
Seeing as RTÉ’s safety-first legal department has denied us High Court clarification, what’s Graham Norton’s personal definition of homophobia? “Okay, the parallel I’d use is: if somebody called me, say, a racist my first reaction wouldn’t be to call a lawyer. I’d ask myself instead, ‘What have I done to provoke that person to call me that?’ You examine what you’ve done. If you think they’re wrong, you say, ‘I can see why you think that, but I’m not that’. It just seems a weird reaction to call in a lawyer. It suggests that they know precisely why they’re being called homophobic. If they really want to be pedantic, I suppose a fear of gay marriage isn’t actually homophobia, but it’s homophobia adjacent; it’s not far off. So I think it was incredibly disingenuous of them to take legal action against RTÉ and Panti. It’s embarrassing for everybody.”
David Quinn, Breda O’Brien, John Waters and others at the Iona Institute benefitting to the tune of €85,000 may have stuck in a lot of right-minded craws – but it’s the “hey, that’s my bloody licence-fee!” aspect that has drawn many people into the debate, who previously wouldn’t have given gay marriage much, or indeed in some cases any, thought.
“I mean, ‘the debate’... how can there be a debate?” Norton ponders. “Personally, I don’t want to get married, but if you do want to get married, knock yourself out. Lots of heterosexual couples decide to live together without getting married but for those who do, hoorah! How gay people getting married undermines straight people getting married, I don’t know: is your marriage that fragile? That some gays do it and suddenly... What is your husband going to say? ‘I can suck cock and get married? I’m so out of this vagina!’ If that’s really your fear, homophobia is the least of your worries.”
In his recent Hot Press interview, Boy George took an interesting tack. “For me, gay marriage is quite a conservative idea,” he offered. “I uphold anyone’s right to do that, but it’s not something that appeals to me. It’s kind of gay people buckling down, doing the right thing, which you’d think those right-wing types would embrace.”
I’ve checked every inch of the Iona Institute’s website and I’m pretty sure they don’t. “Everyone knows the use of the word ‘institute’ is just a feeble attempt to give themselves a veneer of considered intellectual respectability,” Norton reflects. “But it’s actually the ‘Iona’ part that pisses me off. I hate that they’d try to co-opt all of Irish culture, all of Irish history. ‘We own this, we planted a flag in what being Irish means’. And you just think, ‘Fuck off! Ireland isn’t that anymore’. They love the phrase ‘ordinary decent people’. And again you think, ‘Fuck off!’
“Because I was going to be talking to you, I actually bothered to go on the Iona Institute’s website, which is a thing of beauty! There’s a great video on it – The Case For Man And Woman Marriage. That’s what it’s actually called. God forbid they use the word ‘sexual’ at any time. It’s all about protecting children, how we all deserve a mother and father. That’s great, and we do all love a mummy and daddy, but that’s where all gays came from. From heterosexual couples. You made us: we are literally cut from the same cloth.
“Ireland, by and large, is beginning to get that. It enjoys being liberal. When I go back now – and I pretty much spend my entire summer near to where I grew up in Bandon – it’s such a different place. It takes pride in accepting all types of people. There’s more than 40 shades of green. This tiny minority can yell all they want, but it’s over. It’s all done. The Iona Institute, and people like that, are like rats trapped in the corner of a barn. They know the jig is up. That’s why they’re screaming so loud.”
Deadly serious until now, Graham Norton bursts out laughing when I ask him what he thinks of John Waters’ part in all of this. We’re normally careful not to disrespect former Hot Press scribes around here – but, unfortunately, John’s involvement in the imbroglio is impossible to airbrush.
“It’s interesting. If you go online most of the comments underneath the articles relate to how bad John Waters’ Eurovision song was,” he says managing to overcome his mirth. “People are more exercised about that than what he’s got to say about marriage. That’s the genius thing. It’s like, ‘What, the same John Waters? That man’s an idiot, so we’ll ignore his call’. You wouldn’t exactly use his personal life if you were doing an ad for heterosexual marriage. He’s not the poster boy, is he? There’s something deliciously Irish about it all.”
Pope Francis spoke recently about the need for us all to love gay people. The qualifier being, of course, that in Christ’s eyes they’re still an abomination.
“I’d say, in his defence, that it’s a big step forward,” Graham says. “There was no love before! I remember growing up, people would write to Gay Byrne on the radio and sign their letters, ‘A good Irish Catholic’ – like those three words were totally indivisible. You couldn’t be any of those things unless you were all three. I’d be listening – not being ‘gay’ at that stage, just Protestant – and thinking, ‘Oh right, I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m not Irish enough’. It was incredibly alienating.”
If anything, it’s worse in the North of Ireland where “sodomite” is a word routinely to be found on Ian Paisley Sr.’s lips – and the then-Strangford MP Iris Robinson could assert that, “There can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality, than sexually abusing innocent children.”
“She can say it, even though it’s patently nonsense and makes her an idiot too. It’s like John Waters spouting his anti-gay marriage stuff – he can, that’s his prorogative. But should he be surprised when someone turns around and says, ‘Oh by the way, that thing you just said? It’s homophobic’?”
More generally, Norton is dismissive of the rump of religiously motivated bigots who harbour fundamentally anti-gay prejudices. “If you think gay marriage is the end of the world, that’s your opinion,” he states. “Tell everyone you can, have your websites, have your forums, have your members and people donating money. But don’t be surprised when somebody like Miss Panti kicks back and says, ‘You’re not pro-marriage because if you were you’d want as many people as possible to do it. You’re not pro-anything. You’re using semantics. You are in fact violently anti-gay’.”
Arriving in Ireland for the first time in 1983 – I’d previously lived a godless London life – I was amazed to find that there were no gay people in my new home, Tramore. There were of course but even in the pirate radio/rock band circles I was moving in, nobody felt confident enough to come out.
“There was nothing to come out to,” Norton recalls. “I would have just been gay watching television, gay riding my bike. Clearly I was gay – but there was nobody I knew of to be gay with. Nowadays they’ve got bloody Gaydar, but all I had was guilt and fear, because the sexual act in which I wished to engage was a criminal offence and remained so until 1993. Since then, Ireland has overwhelmingly been moving in the right direction, which is why I want to ask these people, ‘Why are you so scared and intimidated by the idea of gay marriage?’ There’s nothing positive in their agenda; what drives them is fear. They love using language – they’re ‘pro-this’ but actually they’re just against stuff. It’s a really horrible, sucking-the-joy-out-of-life attitude, so you feel sorry for them.”
Moving in the right direction or not, I know of two singers with prominent Irish bands who want to come out but won’t because they fear their sexuality will overshadow their music.
“It’s a little bit better in the UK, but not a whole lot,” he muses. “Normally if I’m mentioned in the papers I’ll have ‘camp comic’ or ‘gay TV star’ in front of my name. You can never just be Graham Norton; that’s just something they do.”
One of Ireland’s best-known writers approached Hot Press Editor Niall Stokes at a function not so long ago and thanked him for the classified LGBT contact ads we started running in the late ‘70s – which were even more important for young gays outside Dublin, who were struggling with their sense of identity, than for those in the capital. The classifieds were, he said, just about the only acknowledgement of (1) people of a non- heterosexual persuasion existing here; and (2) their having a right to be loved and/or swap bodily fluids with whoever over the age of consent they wanted to.
“Hot Press would have been a rare beacon of enlightenment in that respect,” Graham agrees. “All I wanted to do during my teenage years was get the hell out of Ireland. If someone had said, ‘One day you’ll willingly return and spend three months a year there’, I’d have thought they were bonkers. I really enjoy it now: it’s such a beautiful place and Irish people are great... all the clichés! I went back to my school, Bandon Grammar, in 2010 for Prize Day and there were gay people there. I thought, ‘Wow!’: firstly, because these kids were ballsy and confident enough to say, ‘This is who I am’; and secondly because the school was going, ‘Yes, we have gay people and it’s fine. We’re totally okay with this’.”
A friend of mine’s 15-year-old son has just come out and started a 5th Form Gay Society in his school.
“Is there anybody in it?” Norton laughs. “No, that’s great. What’s wonderful is that he’s growing up in a country where gay marriage legislation is being discussed. That was unimaginable when I was 15. In a way, I’m actually glad that these journalists and the Iona Institute exist. The great thing about extremists is that they drag everyone towards the centre. That’s why they exist. You hear their opinions and suddenly you’re a little bit more tolerant – because you don’t wanna be them! The stuff on the Iona Institute website would have been an accurate portrayal of Ireland in the 1970s, but now they’re a little lunatic fringe.”
Long before Rory O’Neill frocked up as Miss Panti, Graham Norton could be found on cult ‘80s Network 2 show, Nighthawks, as a tea-towel clad Mother Teresa. I bet that got got the Crazy Coloured Biro brigade writing to him en masse.
“No, but poor old Dana – not Dana International... Dana National... Dana Parochial! – did try to book me to appear on her Scottish TV religious affairs programme,” he giggles again. “I kid you not! She didn’t realise it was a tribute show. She thought it was the real Mother Teresa appearing in Edinburgh for a month. Which is no more ridiculous than the guff John Waters, yer’ one Breda O’Brien and the Iona Institute have been spouting!”