Conor Horgan’s new documentary The Queen of Ireland is intimate enough to get to know Panti and her male alias Rory O’Neill as friends, and reverential enough to get to respect them as national treasures. Danni Glover reviews.
Panti Bliss is a force of nature. She looks like Lady Bunny drawn by Hanna Barbera but she carries herself with the quiet, self-assured confidence of the righteous. She’s intelligent and filthy, but uniquely talented at putting you at ease. She may be a fictional character, a drag performer of the most traditional sort, but that doesn’t mean you don’t lover her like an Auntie. Conor Horgan’s new documentary The Queen of Ireland is intimate enough to get to know Panti and her male alias Rory O’Neill as friends, and reverential enough to get to respect them as national treasures.
O’Neill’s story is inspirational in a relatable sort of way. Born in Ballinrobe in 1969, he had a happy childhood, though he was aware he didn’t belong in Little Ireland. He attended art college at Dún Laoghaire where he began to frequent illegal gay clubs and develop a drag identity. Panti was born in Tokyo, where the patrons of the night club in which she performed struggled to pronounce “Leticia”. O’Neill was diagnosed with HIV in 1995, but continued hosting Pride and Miss Alternative Ireland in Dublin. He received worldwide notoriety in 2014 when he called attention to homophobia in the Irish journalistic establishment in an interview on RTÉ’s Saturday Night Show, an accusation that brought him legal threats and viral attention when he delivered a speech at the Abbey Theatre which was retweeted by LGBT luminaries from Stephen Fry to RuPaul. Recently, Panti has been at the centre of Ireland’s successful campaign for same-sex marriage. More than a mere figurehead, the documentary shows him knocking on doors and, in 2009, delivering an impassioned speech in drag. “Anyone can get married in this country except you. Any soccer hooligan, any fascist, any murderer, any sex offender can get married, but you cannot.” Provocative though her words may have been, they certainly cut to the heart of the argument for immediate marriage equality in Ireland; in a country which was slower than many to decriminalise homosexuality, where church and state have never been convincingly separated, the need for this victory was felt urgently by the gay community. Tonie Welsh tells the filmmakers “It’s the closest this country will ever get to giving us our apology.”
The film reaches its climax on the day Ireland announced the results of its marriage referendum, a buoyant, proud yes, and of Conor Horgan’s sweeping scenes of celebrating Dublin crowds nobody looks brighter, happier, and more grateful than Panti, resplendent in pink. Horgan has a beautiful eye for the colourful, making him an excellent director to take the helm of a drag film, and he seems to have worked really closely with Panti to tell the story of her role in dragging Ireland into the twenty-first century. Horgan captured the now famous footage of Panti’s speech at the Abbey Theatre, and it’s clear they have an affectionate and intimate artistic relationship. The narrative of their relationship on screen (more visible, I’d argue, than many other documentarians; perhaps comparable to Alex Gibney’s relationship with Lance Armstrong, though less problematic) got me thinking about the collaborative nature of both drag artistry and activism, and the ways in which our genders, both inherent and performed, and engagements with activism intersect in our community. The face we wear in our most visible moments is important in LGBTQ+ spaces, be we exploring our butch or femme sides, tribalising ourselves as bears or cubs, wearing or subverting the gendered norms of what our culture tells us is beautiful; we may be closeted or out and proud, in person or behind a computer screen; our mode of engagement with LGBTQ+ activism and the way in which we present our authentic selves or not are crucially intertwined. For Rory and Panti, they are usually intertwined in a pair of spanx and a wig.
Panti Bliss is a force of nature, and like any force of nature she is a natural documentary subject. The Queen of Ireland is as intimate as 20,000 Days on Earth, as personal as I Am Divine, as entertaining as The Celluloid Closet, and as historically important as Paris is Burning. It’s available on DVD on Friday 13th November and is available on OurScreen for public screenings.
Follow Danni on Twitter (@danvestite)