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Ireland’s Panti-Gate: The Continuing Debate Over Gay Rights

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As Ireland moves away from its uneasy coalition with the Catholic church, the issue of gay rights in Ireland is gaining more traction. The upcoming same-sex marriage referendum has resulted in gay rights being discussed on Irish television. On the January 11 edition of the Saturday Night Show on RTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcaster, Rory O’Neill (aka Ireland’s arguably most famous Drag Queen, Panti Bliss) became the center of a national controversy over gay rights and homophobia in Ireland. During his live on-air interview with host Brendan O’Connor, O’Neill described a number of Irish journalists as well as a pressure group named the Iona Institute as homophobic in their views toward same-sex marriage.

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The Iona Institute is a private lobby group, characterized by some as privileged people seeking to influence Irish law and seeking to impose their own personal religious views on people.” They describe themselves as promotingthe place of marriage and religion in societyand have been actively pursuing an agenda against same-sex marriage, among other issues, since launching in 2007. Iona has become increasingly vocal in recent months, however, following the announcement of the referendum. The Iona Institute is given a significant amount of time and attention by RTÉ studios, which is questionable considering the small scope they have as a small lobby group, albeit well funded. This anomaly is leaving some commentators to question why they are given such visibility on the national station.

Following O’Neill’s interview, members of the Iona Institute threatened legal action against RTÉ. This resulted in RTÉ initially taking the entire episode offline. The episode was eventually put back online, but with the “offending” part removed from the interview. Ireland doesn’t have the greatest track record when it comes to gay rights, and so we might expect for RTÉ’s decision to censor O’Neill to slip under the radar. But that’s not what happened. Instead, when RTÉ took the show recording offline, then publicly apologized and paid a sum of money to the Iona Institute when they threatened legal action against libel, a public backlash started immediately. RTÉ’s apology to Iona read:

On the Saturday Night Show on the 11th of January last, comments were made by a guest suggesting that the journalist and broadcaster John Waters, Breda O’Brien and some members of the Iona Institute are homophobic.  These are not the views of RTÉ, and we would like to apologise for any upset or distress caused to the individuals named or identified. It is an important part of democratic debate that people must be able to hold dissenting views on controversial issues.

Many viewed this statement as a hypocritical stance, an attempt to guarantee open public debate through censorship. RTÉ, as a public broadcaster, receives 50% of its funding through publicly paid license fees in exchange for maintaining a public service on their broadcasts. In 2012, RTE received €180,894,000 through this license fee. And the fact that RTÉ awarded public money (reportedly €85,000) to those in the Iona Institute who had threatened legal action fueled further outrage.

The Irish media has reported that over 100 people complained to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland over RTÉ’s apology to the Iona Institute, with nearly ten times that number of complaints logged to RTÉ itself, one of which reads, “RTÉ had so many other options here. But by cowing down to Iona…they’ve reinforced the status quo that some people’s views matter more.”

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In reaction to this, Panti Bliss gave a speech known as a Noble Call following the final performance of The Risen People at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Each performance of this play has featured a Noble Call from a guest performer; it is essentially a speech for someone in the public eye to use the stage to offer either a response to the play or to speak on a public issue.

The Abbey Theatre, also known as the National Theatre of Ireland, was established in 1904 by W.B. Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory as part of the Irish Literary Revival. The Revival in Ireland was one of the country’s first attempts to solidify Gaelic heritage and Irish national identity in the face of colonization. The Abbey stage therefore has always been a place of debate and controversy. For Panti Bliss to take the stage there and make public the level of homophobia in Ireland today made for a powerful statement.

Panti’s speech focuses on the kinds of harassment a queer person can expect to get in Ireland. Panti explains that when the gay community experiences harassment, there can exist a desire in that moment to appear the same, to be “just like everyone else” to avoid the harassment. This “shameful” desire, as Panti describes it, comes from the same place as the harassment, the internal homophobia that exists in everyone in Ireland.

I do, it is true, believe that almost all of you are probably homophobes. But I’m a homophobe. It would be incredible if we weren’t. To grow up in a society that is overwhelmingly homophobic and to escape unscathed would be miraculous. So I don’t hate you because you are homophobic. I actually admire you. I admire you because most of you are only a bit homophobic. Which all things considered is pretty good going.

But I do sometimes hate myself. I hate myself because I fucking check myself while standing at pedestrian crossings. And sometimes I hate you for doing that to me. [1]

Organizations like Iona feed off this homophobia, and push forward the idea that same-sex marriage will ruin traditional marriage and by extension, Irish society as we know it.

As we can see, progress has come slowly to Ireland. While the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland removed the “special position” of the Roman Catholic Church in the 1970s, removing the residual Catholic morality out of state matters has been slow. Divorce was only legalized in Ireland in 1996, and birth control was only made freely available in 1979 with the Health (Family Planning) Act; homosexuality was only decriminalized in 1993, and the law on abortion rights is only now being debated. The backlash against RTÉ, however, is a positive sign. Iona’s efforts will not turn back the clock; many in the Irish public are already attempting to challenge their views about homosexuality. That’s what makes Panti’s honest account so incredibly powerful. While Panti may be “too gay” for some, we Irish are doing our best to unlearn our homophobia and move forward. We are holding our national platforms, as well as ourselves, to a higher standard.

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1. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ZgplK8Kyd2yA9cjJvn6S_KeLCoQoG28C0NGwkXMwpJc/edit

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