When it comes to a human rights film festival, it seems there can not be a higher honor than having your film play the opening night. This year, the honor went to “Queen of Ireland,” which kicked off the ACT Human Rights Film Festival on Friday, April 14.
The film centers around subject Rory O’Neil, better known as Panti Bliss, Ireland’s most recognized drag queen. Directed by Connor Horgan, the film follows O’Neil’s rise to eventual activist during Ireland’s fight for marriage equality in the 2015 referendum that amended the country’s constitution.
In a hilariously acted opening, Panti Bliss remarks at how beautiful she is before walking out of her dressing room and onto a stage. Once there, Bliss tells the audience that if they are easily offended, “then this isn’t the show for you.” From the intro alone, it is clear that “Queen of Ireland” has a lot to say and will produce a lot of laughs along the way.
In what is a tale that is as funny as it is poignant, the film is an embodiment of Bliss herself. O’Neil’s sharp wit and unflinching humor are the stars of the film as it chronicles the queen’s upbringing, entrance into the drag scene and O’Neil’s eventual role as an activist.
Before all of this, O’Neil grew up in the tiny rural town of Ballinrobe where O’Neil knew that he was very different from other boys his age. It was when O’Neil went to London where he began getting involved in the clubbing and drag scene that O’Neil found his alter ego, Panti Bliss.
Using O’Neil as the film’s guide, “Queen of Ireland” takes an inside look into a culture that was very much underground thanks to anti-gay laws that plagued Ireland and were eventually repealed in 1993. As passerby carried on their day-to-day, seemingly normal lives, there was a hidden gay club scene that was thriving and vibrant.
Horgan’s film does a great job of chronicling O’Neil’s story in the greater context of the highly Catholic country of Ireland. While humor is the backbone of this story, the film does an honest job of showing the joys and hardships of being gay in heteronormative culture. When O’Neil was featured on an Irish late night talk show, he was actually sued for talking about gay rights as there is no first amendment in Ireland like the one we have in the U.S.
In fact, the cultural difference that surrounded O’Neil and Ireland’s fight for marriage equality is what inspired so much hope. When the referendum came in 2015, 68 percent of Ireland’s population came out in support of same sex marriage. This amended the constitution and now marriage equality is guaranteed by Ireland’s constitution forever. Considering how deeply conservative the country is, this was a landmark victory in equality for not only Ireland but the world.
It was during the Q&A with Horgan and O’Neil that O’Neil remarked, “if Ireland could make same sex marriage legal, why can’t the rest of the world?” It was a moment that reflected the true joys that the global LGBTQ+ movement has enjoyed and one that will hopefully continue in other countries as well.
The power of “Queen of Ireland” comes from the personal story O’Neil elaborated on after the film screening. “It’s the power of the personal story that will change the world,” O’Neil said. “It is impossible to hate someone if you really know who they are.”
With this in mind, Horgan and O’Neil’s film is a perfect addition to a human rights film festival. Film and media are immensely powerful because they allow us to see incredible figures in a light that we are not usually allowed in our everyday lives. By showing these narratives, we can inspire hope for generations to come as we strive for true equality and equity for all people.
James Wyatt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @jaames2295