Panti Bliss: EU lessons from the gay rights movement
“Private activism” is worth more than political campaigns, whether people support the EU or gay rights, Panti Bliss, a famous Irish drag queen and rights campaigner, has said.
But a “meek” or “invisible” EU will never win public support, he added.
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The drag queen, who spoke to EUobserver at a gay rights fundraiser in Brussels on Wednesday (29 June), compared the Irish referendum in 2015, which legalised gay marriage, to last week’s Brexit vote.
“What did it more [in Ireland] than activism per se was the private activism of people coming out,” Panti Bliss, whose real name is Rory O'Neill, said.
“In Ireland today… even your 75 year-old mother-in-law or whoever, she knows the local gay. It’s pretty much impossible not to have a gay neighbour or a lesbian granddaughter or co-worker and that’s what changed Ireland. That’s what won the [Irish] referendum,” he said.
“When people went to vote they voted for people they know rather than voting for the dry arguments of the No side,” he said.
“It was the same in the UK - the dry, economic arguments for staying in Europe didn’t win because they lost against a mostly emotional argument to leave.”
He said the EU could learn lessons from the gay rights movement more broadly.
“The EU should show its face more often,” he said.
“English people only heard about the EU when it was doing bad things. I think it’s important to remind people, whether it’s a boat in a flotilla or an [EU-funded] sports centre in Wales, that the EU did this and the EU is behind this,” he said, referring to EU plans to sponsor a boat in a gay pride event in Amsterdam in summer.
Protection of sexual and other minorities is enshrined in EU law.
But some EU states with right-wing governments, such as Hungary and Poland, are against EU action on the issue. People in Slovakia recently voted in 14 MPs from an openly homophobic party.
Panti Bliss noted that the Brexit vote had also emboldened far-right elements in British society.
But he said it would be a mistake if Brexit prompted EU leaders to shy away from its values for fear of deepening divisions.
“They should say fuck Brexit and have the courage of their convictions,” he said.
“Now’s not the time for timidity. Now’s the time for the EU to say ‘that’s what we stand for’ - and to forge ahead."
"Now’s not the time for the EU to modify itself to suit right-wing agendas. If that means losing countries like Britain, well, it’s a pain in the ass. Maybe the EU will end up being a bit smaller, but also stronger - that’s life,” he said.
Critics of the Pride movement, which organises gay rights parades around the world, have accused it of provoking a backlash by the parades' flamboyant nature.
But Panti Bliss, who recently attended a mini-pride in Bosnia, an EU-aspirant state where gay people are afraid to show their sexuality in public, said the Pride movement was effective because it was provocative.
“The pride movement has transformed cultures around the world,” he said.
“If it weren’t for the drag queens and the leather queens being visible, we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. You don’t get anywhere by being invisible or meek.”
Wednesday’s fundraiser, which was organised by Ilga-Europe, a Brussels-based NGO, had armed police outside the venue.
The security came after the Brussels terrorist attacks in March and the recent massacre at a gay club in Orlando, Florida, in the US - both of which were carried out in the name of Islam.
Panti Bliss said Muslim minorities and LGBTI minorities should be able to live side by side in Europe.
But he said that religion can be a retrograde force.
He said one reason why Irish people voted Yes to gay marriage was because the Roman Catholic church and its “religiously-backed homophobia” had lost authority due to Catholic paedophile scandals.
“Irish people feel a lot more free to make up their own minds about moral and social issues,” he said. “The Irish are very much a la carte Catholics now.”
He said Islamic radicalism is more difficult to combat because of Islam's a la carte nature, however.
“There's no central institution, like the Vatican. Each individual Muslim can answer to a particular imam or [radical] doctrine. It’s a problem, but we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it,” he said.
Speaking at the event on behalf of the European Commission, Elzbieta Bienkowska, the Polish commissioner in charge of the single market, unveiled the motto for the EU’s Amsterdam Pride boat.
“No matter who you love or who you are, we share the same dreams,” the motto says.
Bienkowska prompted laughter and applause when she said that several eastern European countries, “except Poland”, are advancing pro-gay rights laws.
But Vera Jourova, the Czech EU commissioner in charge of equality issues, recently told EUobserver she might not go to Amsterdam Pride because of her tight agenda.
Julia Ehrt, a campaigner against transphobia, said laws on trans people lag behind the trend.
She said trans people still had to undergo surgical sterilisation in 22 EU states if they wanted to change the gender in their passport.
Speaking on stage at Wednesday’s gala, Panti Bliss described the EU capital as “the heart of liberal Europe”.
But he said that unless there is change at the personal level, EU laws would not stop hate crimes.
He noted that the Orlando massacre occurred despite the fact that the state of Florida had some of the most pro-LGTBI legislation in the world.
He said it shocked gay people in the EU and beyond because of their common experience of gay clubs as sanctuaries of personal freedom.
“I know what boys they kissed and what music they were listening to [in Orlando], because I’ve kissed the same boys and listened to the same music”, Panti Bliss said.
"I’ve had the best times of my life there and I’ve never even been there."