A Year on From ‘Check Myself’

A year ago, Panti Bliss stood on the Abbey stage and delivered an amazing speech. The video had us all here in Ireland talking. Within days, the clip of Panti’s oration went viral. It wasn’t just Irish people who were talking – people the world over were tweeting the link and getting in touch with Panti. Even Madonna was moved to email Panti and commend her on her honest, passionate speech.

I wrote about it at the time and I haven’t changed my mind.  I still think Panti was brave and magnificent that night. I think she deserved every word of praise that came her way.

But.

But there is something that has bothered me since I first saw the video. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it immediately. Something just niggled at me; like a word on the tip of your tongue, or seeing a photograph of someone you used to know really well, but whose face you can’t put a name to. It was a few months before the penny dropped and I realised where my discomfort sprang from.

Here’s the thing; Panti Bliss got on stage and spoke about her reality. She was lauded and applauded around the globe. Suddenly, people outside of this little island knew who Panti Bliss was, the name of Rory O’Neill (Panti’s alter-ego) became known around the world as well. At the same time, women around the world are screaming to have their truths heard. They are clamouring to have their voices listened to, their eloquently-expressed points of view taken seriously and their realities acknowledged.

A woman living in what is still a man’s world – men make the rules and women have to engage with, and play by, them – needs to be like a man in order to succeed. A woman who works in a profession learns very quickly that traits and behaviour mimicking the most male of males is what garners respect, kudos and positive comments. The professions value their creators – men – more than they value women. Men make the rules, and they make them so they favour men. Even the so-called ‘feminine’ professions – like nursing and teaching – favour men. More men get promoted, and more quickly, to senior positions than women. Every day when such a woman gets up to go to work, she is essentially dressing in drag, and trying desperately to fit in to a profession that does not value her nearly as much as it values her male colleagues.

In a nutshell, what made me uncomfortable about Panti Bliss’s wonderful address last year was nothing about Panti and the way she spoke and what she said. What made me uncomfortable was the knowledge that when a man wears a dress, puts on heels, carefully applies make-up and speaks his truth, he is is heard more clearly, listened to more carefully and applauded more loudly than a woman who does the same thing.

Being Gay and Breastfeeding

In recent weeks, I’ve had a few messages from people who follow this blog wondering – variously – if I’m dead, if I’m stuck for something to say, or if I’ve stopped writing.

I’m happy to report that I’m no deader than usual, I’m definitely not stuck for something to say and I certainly haven’t stopped writing. I have been writing – I’ve done (another) final edit of the book; started volume two; jotted down a few thousand words for a work of fiction as well as a few ideas for a radio play that’s been knocking around inside my skull for a few months. I’ve been writing for the Gifted Ireland website and I’ve been doing a bit of academic writing as well (oooh! Get me! 🙂 ). There are even several drafts of posts that I’ve started, but haven’t finished for various reasons….but enough of this ‘dog ate my homework’ stuff, let’s crack on.

For the past four weeks, Ireland has been having a national conversation about homophobia. For those of you who don’t live on this island, let me give you a brief outline:

Rory O’Neill has this wonderful, funny, alter-ego; the amazing Panti Bliss. On a (fairly awful) programme on Saturday night four weeks ago, Rory alluded to homophobes in the public eye. He was pushed to name names, and he did. Within days, RTE (the broadcaster responsible for the programme) had received solicitors’ letters and decided to pay eighty-five thousand euros to those named individuals. An apology was also issued (though, so far, Rory hasn’t received one).

Later, Panti Bliss was invited to The Abbey Theatre (the world’s first national theatre) to answer the Noble Call*. What she said was stunning:

Yesterday (February 9th), Rory spoke to Miriam O’Callaghan on the radio. He spoke about what it’s like to be a gay man in 21st Century Ireland.

‘The time that I’m most jealous of straight people,’ Rory told us. ‘Is when I am with a boyfriend and I am walking down the street and the most natural, ordinary thing in the world is to hold his hand, or put your arm around him. The way couples do….the way we see straight couples on the street every single day, so often that you don’t notice…’

Rory went on to explain how, even if you’re a very out, very proud, very confident gay man in the most comfortable arena possible for being gay – the Men’s Department in Brown Thomas’s – being affectionate can be difficult:

‘Even then, it is different for a gay couple.’ he says, because even then, it still feels like it is not a normal sign of affection.

‘It feels like you’re making a political statement,’ Rory continues. ‘You’re forced into it being this big gesture. It’s not just about you. It’s not a small private thing between you and your boyfriend. It becomes this political statement. And even nice people in BT’s, who want to say “oh isn’t that nice – look at the gay couple holding hands”, they’ve turned your private moment into this public moment because they’re being supportive and nice but it just means that your private moment isn’t a little private moment, it’s on display…’

Now, I am probably the furthest thing you could get from a gay man but suddenly I understood. I knew what Rory was talking about. I was no longer sympathising – I was empathising. Suddenly, I got it.

It might sound odd, to draw parallels between a gay couple kissing in public and breastfeeding in public – but I’ve had the same experience with a hungry (or tired or generally discombobulated) baby. I’ve had what should have been a private experience politicised and commented upon. I’ve had people sit not two metres away from me and discuss that I was feeding my child as though I was deaf, as though I didn’t understand English, and as though they had every right to discuss, and have an opinion on, what I was doing.

I’ve had people gawp in disbelief – not so much when the baby was only a few months old, but definitely when she was one or two or three (by the time she was four, we no longer breastfed in public). I’ve had people (young women, usually) make known their disgust that I was using my breasts for the precise job they were created for.

Like a kiss between lovers, breastfeeding your baby or child is more than a physical act – it is an expression of love. There’s an intimacy to it – even when it’s automatic.  I’ve had people smile warmly and even give me a thumbs up when I’ve been feeding my baby. I’ve had perfect strangers go out of their way to let me know that they ‘approve’. It feels a lot better than the disgust – and it’s lovely to have people’s support and to have them being nice – but it still feels like they need to make a point about how ‘accepting’ they are of your ‘oddness’.

I now have a much better understanding of how it feels to be a gay man in twenty-first century Ireland. It feels like being a breastfeeding mother in twenty-first century Ireland. Thanks, Rory, for sharing your gift of communication and helping me understand how you feel every time you feel you need to check yourself.

 

* In Ireland, at a party a noble call is when it’s your turn – to sing, recite or otherwise entertain. You can’t refuse. You can plead neither illness nor insanity. You must perform. The recent play at the Abbey ‘The Risen People’ (which dealt with the 1913 Lockout) had a Nobel Call performed by a different person whose own story bore relevance to the broad themes of the play.