An Irish drag queen, social media and the ability to inspire collective activism

By Daragh Cassidy

The power of social media to inspire political upheaval and social change is profound.

In the Arab world, The Arab Spring was heavily influenced by Twitter, as citizens within areas affected by the uprisings used it as a means for collective activism in order to circumvent state-operated media channels and censorship. In Iran, government demonstrators and political opponents have often used Twitter as a means for collective activism too, so much so that the authorities have regularly banned its use in order to try suppress public dissent.

More recently, in Ireland, the power of social media to effect social change and spark activism was laid bare once more through events surrounding a debate on the issues of equality, homophobia and gay marriage.

It all started when Irish drag artist Panti Bliss (a.k.a. Rory O’Neill) performed on the late-night Saturday Night Show on RTE, the Irish state broadcaster. After the performance Rory was interviewed by host Brendan O’Connor as himself and spoke about gay attitudes in Ireland and the issue of homophobia.

During the interview Rory called the Iona Institute, a conservative right-wing Catholic lobby group based in Ireland, homophobic. His rationale for this was that they actively campaign against equal rights for gay people in areas such as marriage, employment and adoption. Rory also called the Irish journalist John Waters homophobic for similar reasons.

Rory a.k.a. Panti Bliss being interviewed on Irish TV

Rory a.k.a. Panti Bliss being interviewed on Irish TV

Little did RTE or Rory know what the ramifications of the interview would be.

Shortly after the interview was aired, the Iona Institute and John Waters threatened to take a defamation case against RTE, claiming they were defamed for having been labelled ‘homophobic’ on the TV show. Although the Iona Institute and RTE have since released wildly differing accounts of exactly what happened, the end result was that RTE paid out €85,000 in damages to John Waters and five members of the Iona Institute: Breda O’Brien, David Quinn, Dr Patricia Casey, Dr John Murray and Maria Steen, despite some of these people not even being named in the interview.

The reaction from the public was overwhelmingly negative. Many people felt it was wrong of state-funded RTE to pay out taxpayers’ money to the Iona Institute and John Waters and people questioned the impact the decision would have on freedom of speech. As Ireland will vote on the issue of gay marriage next year, people questioned how a civilised debate could now take place on the issue without fear of insults and threats of defamation.

As the furor over the payout escalated, RTE remained silent, no doubt hoping the controversy would die down. Panti, however, did no such thing.

They say a picture says a thousand words. In the digital age it’s a video. A gifted performer and excellent orator, Panti took to the stage at the end of a play in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, to give a rousing, emotional and thought-provoking speech on the issues of homophobia and oppression.

Panti performing her speech at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin

Panti performing her speech at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin

The speech was filmed and then placed on YouTube. Since being uploaded, Panti’s ‘Noble Call’ has become a YouTube sensation. The speech has already been viewed over half a million times and been applauded by famous celebrities such as Madonna, Graham Norton, Stephen Fry and Martina Navratilova.

The speech has also been picked up by news outlets across the world and been translated into over a dozen languages. The hashtag #TeamPanti began trending on Twitter as people showed their support for Rory and t-shirts emblazoned with the words I’m On Team Panti began appearing in clothes shops around Dublin.

I'm On Team Panti t-shirts on sale in a shop in Dublin

I’m On Team Panti t-shirts on sale in a shop in Dublin

What was so interesting was that the speech, fuelled by social media, managed to provoke a wide-ranging and frank debate on marriage equality, gay rights and the issue of homophobia in Ireland, which in many people’s opinion was long overdue. Indeed, the video became so popular that the topic of homophobia and RTE’s payout was discussed all over Irish prime-time TV, the radio, and by government ministers in the Irish house of parliament.  

Social media continues to be used as an effective channel for marketers to advertise their products and services. As events in Iran, the Arab world, and now Ireland have shown, a far more important use is its ability to drive social and political change and debate.

And when you have a drag queen added to the mix that helps too I guess…

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