When asked what he expects from his upcoming trip to Halifax, Rory O’Neill says, “To be bloody freezing!”
O’Neill is perhaps better known as Panti Bliss, whose speech on homophobia went viral in early February. “I have always described myself as an accidental activist,” O’Neill says.
Before becoming a viral video sensation and international news story, O’Neill was a well-known part of Dublin’s gay scene as a performer and gay-rights advocate. For those reasons and more, O’Neill/Bliss was asked to speak at Saint Mary’s University (SMU) in Halifax.
Seán Kennedy is a director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Study of Culture at SMU. Kennedy is originally from Killarney and wanted SMU and the rest of Halifax to get “the full Panti experience.”
“We chose to invite Panti because of the way in which Panti was able to bring up homophobia,” Kennedy says. “One of the reasons I think she speaks so well to mixed audiences is because she never knows who is in the audience. She’s sharpened her skills and her weaponry in learning how to talk to people.”
O’Neill and Panti have recently been asked to speak everywhere from Montreal to New York, and the personal appearances and speaking engagements seem to keep coming. But before the viral video, O’Neill was making headlines in his home country for another reason, a controversy dubbed “Pantigate.”
On January 11, 2014, O’Neill was invited to speak on Irish television channel RTE, where he was asked his thoughts on homophobia in Ireland. O’Neill pointed out that it is still common to see homophobic entries in newspapers via certain op-ed writers. When asked to name names, O’Neill mentioned some well-known journalists, as well as a conservative think-tank. Those same people went on to threaten RTE with legal action.
The statement and the threatened legal action soon became headline news in Ireland and throughout the UK. RTE later removed video of the interview from its site and paid out 85,000 pounds.
Even though it was a stressful time for O’Neill, he was able to keep a sense of humour about it all, partly because of the story’s nomenclature.
“It still amuses me to hear government ministers or serious political journalists refer to ‘Pantigate,’” he says. “For years, my friends and I would amuse ourselves by putting ‘Panti’ into words. Pantimonium, Panti Claws, et cetera — so it tickled me immediately.”
In a strange and wonderful way, the video that would make Panti famous around the world was a response to all the hubbub around Pantigate.
“I thought the speech would be heard by the 500 people in the auditorium and maybe a few hundred more on YouTube,” O’Neill says, going on to joke, “If I had known so many people would see it, I’d have brushed my hair better!”
Kennedy viewed that speech online and saw a great way for SMU’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Study of Culture to host a talk on homophobia and oppression. SMU had started off the academic year under the microscope of the media because of controversies surrounding rape chants and homophobic tweeting.
“I want people to know that SMU is more than what headlines make us out to be. There’s been a lot of support,” Kennedy says.
Support has been the mot du jour when it comes to Panti. O’Neill has received numerous public and private messages about his speech, including from such celebrities as Madonna. Even the Pet Shop Boys took it upon themselves to remix Panti’s speech into “Oppressive.”
“The idea that a 10-minute speech about homophobia and oppression would have resonance for so many people around the world is still astounding and delightfully unexpected to me,” O’Neill says.
But more than anything, O’Neill wants people to take all of this seriously.
“People imagine that if you are not being beaten up in the street or having ‘faggot’ screamed at you, then it’s not homophobia,” he says. “Just because homophobia is worse in other places doesn’t mean we have to accept lower levels of homophobia.”
It’s a topic O’Neill plans to address in his talk on March 27 at the Loyola Academic Conference Hall at SMU. Although the talk will focus on homophobia in the Irish media, O’Neill wants people to recognize that homophobia exists in many forms, no matter where you are.
“LGBT people feel pressured to play down their difficulties, to pretend everything is fine. We even believe it most of the time because we have become so accustomed to low-level homophobia that we think it’s normal and hardly remark on it anymore. It’s simply part of the background of our lives. It shouldn’t be.”