From Oscar Wilde to Panti Bliss: LGBTQ Icons of Ireland

Cayla Williams

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Ireland is a country known for historically penalising its citizens for any sexual behaviour not condoned by the Catholic Church (i.e., any sex taking place outside of a heterosexual marriage and/or for purposes other than conception). In more recent years, however, Ireland is at the forefront of the LGBTQ equality movement, being the first country in the world to legalise gay marriage in May 2015. The drastic shift in Ireland’s attitudes towards homosexuality is exemplified in an examination of two of its most notable LGBTQ icons: Oscar Wilde and Panti Bliss (also known as Rory O’Neill when not in drag).

Oscar Wilde seated with cane
Oscar Wilde — Photo Credit: Brett Jordan [Flickr]
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

Now renowned in Ireland as a brilliant author and play write, Oscar Wilde’s fame turned sour after being tried and convicted of “gross indecency” (i.e., homosexual sex), in England in 1895, after which his career and reputation failed to recover during his lifetime. In fact, at the time, his name took on a new infamy, becoming “a code name for ‘unspeakables of the Oscar Wilde sort’ – or gay men.”

While Wilde was convicted in England (and shortly thereafter died in Paris), homosexuality was also criminalised in Ireland during the Victorian era in 1861 while Ireland was still under UK rule. Although homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967 (and in Scotland in 1980 and Northern Ireland in 1982), it remained illegal in the Republic of Ireland until 1993 – 132 years after its initial criminalisation.

More recently, Wilde may be issued a posthumous pardon by the British government under “Turing’s Law,” a bill that will exonerate gay men who were convicted of crimes of gross indecency “under the now-repealed laws.”

Though Wilde is now recognised primarily for his literary works, during the time in which he lived his accomplishments were overshadowed by his homosexuality, a status which (temporarily) tainted his career.

Drag Queen, Panti Bliss
Panti Bliss — Photo Credit: Panti Bliss

Panti Bliss (1968-Present)

Today, eminent drag queen and “accidental” gay rights activist, Panti Bliss, has been nominated by Time magazine for the “Top 100 most influential people world-wide list,” naming Panti Bliss a “’global champion for equality’ and ‘one of Ireland’s most prominent advocates for LGBT rights.’”

In addition to working towards legal equality for the LGBTQ community, Panti Bliss’s activism includes promoting awareness of the continued adversity faced in contemporary society despite the liberalisation of attitudes and laws.

Unlike Oscar Wilde, Panti Bliss’s career has been launched on the basis of her sexual orientation and openly challenging gender roles and norms. However,  as Panti Bliss explains, though homosexuality has been legalised, it has not yet been normalised.

 “Mainstreaming Gayness”

In a 2015 TED Talk, Panti Bliss describes the inhibitions experienced surrounding public displays of affection: “I am 45 years old and I’ve never once comfortably held hands with a lover in public.”

She goes on to explain the social implications of a public display of affection between LGBTQ partners: “Maybe we will decide […] to continue holding hands, you know, defiantly, but now our small intimate gesture between two people in love is no longer a small intimate gesture, it is a political act of defiance and it has been ruined.”

In a New York Times interview with Panti Bliss in 2015, Panti Bliss emphasises her “concern[s] about the ‘mainstreaming of gayness,’” whereby expressions of homosexuality do not constitute “political act[s] of defiance.”

“Our society is homophobic […] and when you are 45 years old and you have spent 30 years putting up with it […] you get fed up with putting up.” She explains that, in the minds of the homophobic: “Gays are walking sex acts,” and that members of the LGBTQ community are often reduced to their sexual behaviour.

Though LGBTQ individuals today do not face the same fate as Oscar Wilde, whereby their achievements are disregarded and they are legally penalised as a result of their sexual orientation, Panti Bliss highlights the disconnect between legal rights and the mainstreaming of homosexuality that exists today.

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Cayla Williams