Born in a small town in rural Mayo – said to be the oldest in the county – Rory O’Neill graduated from Dún Laoghaire College of Art and Design in 1990. After a few years in Tokyo, he began to perform as Panti in Ireland in 1995, hosting a karaoke show at Dublin’s The Front Lounge pub and appearing at The George gay bar. In 1996, Panti became a co-producer and presenter of the Alternative Miss Ireland pageant.
The vibrant yearly beauty pageant ‘open to men, women and animals’ ran until 2012, raising hundreds of thousands of euro for Irish HIV and AIDS organisations. In 2007 Panti – by now a gay icon – got her own venue, opening her eponymous bar on Dublin’s Capel Street. Open seven nights a week, Pantibar hosts live entertainment that includes regular shows by the woman herself, and is at the centre of the city’s gay community.
Rory O’Neill became recognised as a national voice for gay rights in 2014, when he was interviewed on The Saturday Night Show on Irish television. His statement that some Irish journalists were homophobic led to complaints by the persons mentioned. In a move that was called ‘a real attack on the freedom of speech’ by Irish MEP Paul Murphy at the European Parliament, the national broadcaster apologised and paid out €85,000 in compensation to the journalists.
The following month, Panti gave a celebrated speech at The Abbey Theatre, in which she eloquently criticised the backlash against the comments made about homophobia in the RTÉ interview. Her ‘Noble Call’ went viral, being applauded by people like Ru Paul, Stephen Fry, Madonna and Graham Norton. At the time of writing this article the speech had over 810,000 views on YouTube.
Though Panti has openly admitted that the controversy was stressful personally, it can be argued that it did great things for gay rights. The publicity gave her a platform from which to campaign strongly for the vote for marriage equality in Ireland. The day the vote passed, the crowd assembled at Dublin Castle, cheering more loudly and wildly when Panti arrived than for any other campaigner.
In October 2015, a documentary about O’Neill and Panti was released, called The Queen of Ireland. The film had the highest ever grossing opening weekend for an Irish documentary. Panti continues to fight for gay rights in Ireland and abroad. In March 2016, PantiBar became one of the first places in Ireland to offer free, almost-instant HIV testing. In April, Panti Bliss was voted in 29th place in the Time 100 readers’ poll of the world’s most influential people, and in June, Rory O’Neill was granted an honorary law degree by Trinity College Dublin.