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Dublin: 10 °C Wednesday 16 October, 2019
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Panti's story of activism and giving laughs to the usual queer crowd will make you proud

A new documentary looks at Panti Bliss and the story of marriage equality in Ireland.

Source: Video TheJournal.ie/YouTube

TOWARDS THE END of The Queen of Ireland, there is a scene where Panti Bliss is standing in the sitting room of her parents’ Ballinrobe home.

Towering above them in high-heels and a tight-fitting multicoloured dress as they zip up their raincoats, Panti is about to perform a ‘homecoming’ show in the Mayo town.

It’s a week after the marriage equality referendum was passed and a marquee has been erected on the forecourt of the local tyre business for the occasion.

A surreal visual, it almost sums up the journey Rory O’Neill has taken from an out-of-place teenager in the town to become the face of one the greatest feel-good moments of recent Irish history.

That journey is now told in the Conor Horgan-directed documentary about Panti, released this week. It’s a film that the pair started shooting five years ago, never knowing that Panti was soon to go global as a spokesperson against homophobia.

About 25 years after Panti was born in Tokyo as part of the drag double-act Candi Panti, the performance element is perhaps lesser known to an Irish mainstream audience than Panti the campaigner.

It’s something O’Neill himself has spoken about, being a lewd stage performer when most people know you as a campaigner and often refer to you as a ‘national treasure’.

“For me, I always think of myself as an entertainer and that’s what I’ve been doing all these years,” he says.

So it’s slightly odd for me to think of a mainstream audience thinking of me as an activist first, that you’re going to be serious all the time. In some places we might have more people coming along because they want to see activist Panti, but you know in other places it might be the usual queer crowd coming in for a laugh.”

Source: Video TheJournal.ie/YouTube

The film tries to tell both stories and, even though their fortunate fluke of circumstances in the Abbey and RTÉ could never have been predicted, Horgan says that the story of Panti was always going to be told alongside the story of the LGBT rights struggle in Ireland.

I’ve known Rory for quite a long time and worked with Panti for quite a long time, so I knew that as well as the entertainment value of Panti as a character, there was always going to be an activist element as well. Because Rory’s always been involved in pushing equality in this country. So we knew that was always going to be a part of the film, we just didn’t know it was going to be as big a part of the film as it turned out.

The film takes viewers from Ballinrobe to Tokyo and Dublin Castle via Dublin’s underground gay scene and is visually striking, managing to show the vibrancy of gay culture alongside the darkness of the years of criminalisation.

Interviews with O’Neill’s parents, long-time friends, collaborators and tonnes of archive footage all punctuate a story that flies along in about 90 minutes.

It never slows, but the point where O’Neill talks about his HIV diagnosis certainly brings viewers down to earth. But even this subject is joked about and witty one-liners are never far away.

The film ultimately builds towards that “perfect day for a yes” when Ireland passed the marriage equality referendum.

On that day, Panti strolled in sunshine from her bar on Capel Street to Dublin Castle where she was greeted like a head of state.

Source: UniversalPictures Ireland/YouTube

In fact, amongst the hugging and the photos on that day, the film shows a European reporter intent on asking Panti question after question, seemingly uninterested in speaking to the Tánaiste standing right in front of them.

It demonstrated how the referendum was won by people – not politics – and how gay people across the country were forced to put themselves out there and ask for equality.

O’Neill says during the film that he couldn’t not be involved in the campaign, but did he resent having to open his personal life for scrutiny?

“I slightly resented it, but not on my own as a person, but because of all gay people, on behalf of all people,” he says.

I think that all gay people had to step up during that campaign and tell their own personal stories because that’s what won the campaign. It was personal stories and people who didn’t want to vote against their sister or their cousin or whatever. Knocking on a door asking people, “please can you vote Yes so I can get married”.

“It’s a weird position to be in but I also see that as, ‘that’s just the way it is, we’ll get on with it’.”

It’s a journey that certainly ends with an emotional punch and has you leaving the cinema with a smile, both from pride and from the several laugh-out-loud moments peppered throughout the film.

If you like your movies uplifting, and if that sunny day in May struck a chord with you, then it’s well worth your while bending your knee to the Queen of Ireland.

Read: Panti defends ‘gorgeous’ sign amid complaints >

Read: The LGBT matchmaking festival kicks off today – and the world’s media will be here to cover it >

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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