A drag queen from Dublin has been making headlines around the world over the last couple of weeks. The issue that kicked off the controversy was gay rights, but now the debate has morphed into nothing less than a battle for free speech in Ireland.
The tradition of the noble call is an old one from the days when the only entertainment was the craic you made yourself. Everyone had a party piece, a song, a dance, a recitation, a piece of music to offer. Thus, the recent Abbey Theatre production of The Risen People, a play about the famous Dublin Lock Out in 1913, solicited responses in the tradition of the noble call from different people after each performance. Last week, the performer they called on was Rory O’Neill, who performs as “Ireland’s Most-Fabulous Drag Queen” Panti Bliss.
This came a couple of weeks after O’Neill made comments on television that several media pundits were homophobic because of their consistent stance opposing gay rights and the tenor of their comments. Thanks to Ireland’s very broad defamation laws, the individuals threatened to sue RTÉ, Ireland’s national television broadcaster. The station quickly folded, removing the interview from their online database and paying out a large sum to the offended parties. Threats of legal action against O’Neill himself have also been made.
It’s an extraordinary state of affairs, as it appears to effectively mark the death of the concept of balanced coverage of an issue in the Irish media. If the standard of defamation is simply that somebody feels hurt by a comment, then what happens to the give and take of debate? As O’Neill said in his noble call speech, the action attempts to recast the meaning of the word homophobia: gay people are no longer the ones hurt by homophobia, homophobes are.
Since this controversy erupted, the editor of the Irish Daily mail has called for reform of Ireland’s libel laws, claiming that accurate reporting of the news has been impossible for some time. So, “Pantigate” has also focused attention to antiquated libel laws that most modern countries have long since replaced.
Panti’s speech was recorded and has been spreading like wildfire online, as it is an incredibly eloquent and powerful testimony to what it is to be surrounded by homophobic views, actions, and agendas — even when many of them are unconscious rather than overtly hostile.
Perhaps this is the spark that spurs a real debate about LGBT rights in Ireland and meaningful reform of our antiquated libel laws? We can only hope so.
I don’t often write about current affairs, as this site is aimed at providing useful and accurate information about Irish culture, history, and visiting Ireland. But, I believe in reflecting the whole experience of the country, and Ireland remains a country in transition, so I think it’s fair to help get visitors up to speed on the big debates and issues that they’re likely to see reflected in the media upon their arrival in Ireland (and, as this affair is attracting more and more attention around the world, before they arrive as well).
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