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‘LGBTI community fosters vibrant, competitive society’

As a gay person living in Ireland in the 1980s, life was difficult for Rory O’Neill, who is now the country’s foremost drag queen and LGBTI rights activist.

Over the past 35 years, however, Ireland, thought of as a traditionally conservative Catholic nation, has undergone profound transformations, so much so that the country legalized same-sex marriage in 2015.

Ireland’s experience of toleration of minorities, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, has made the country more attractive, inclusive and economically competitive, O’Neill told The Korea Herald last week during his first official trip to Korea sponsored by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. 

Rory O’Neill, also known as Panti Bliss, is Ireland’s foremost drag queen and LGBTI rights activist. (Rory O’Neill)
Rory O’Neill, also known as Panti Bliss, is Ireland’s foremost drag queen and LGBTI rights activist. (Rory O’Neill)

“My message is that the LGBTI people here can look at Ireland’s story and learn from it,” said O’Neill, also known by the stage name “Panti Bliss.”

“Over the last 35 years, Ireland has changed dramatically. In 2015, we became the first country in the world to introduce marriage equality through a popular referendum. We learned a lot about achieving that kind of change along the way. In today’s Ireland, there is no difference between a gay and straight person under the law. They enjoy the same rights and protections from discrimination.”

The single most important factor driving the change has been queer people coming out and telling their personal stories, he said. “It’s easy to have prejudices if you don’t really know them.”

On Oct. 2, O’Neill took part in the screening of the documentary “The Queen of Ireland” -- a powerful film about his career, campaigning and personal life that won critical awards and accolades worldwide -- at CineCube Cinema in Seoul.

Also called a “gender discombobulist” and “accidental activist,” O’Neill played an influential role in the May 2015 Irish referendum on marriage equality. He has written and performed critically acclaimed theatrical shows -- “In These Shoes,” “All Dolled Up,” “A Woman in Progress” and “High Heels in Low Places” -- which have received stellar reviews and packed houses across Ireland, the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia and the United States.

O’Neill has starred in the acclaimed musical “Riot,” performed in Europe, Australia and North America. His 2014 memoir “Woman in the Making” was a best-seller in Ireland.

Rory O’Neill, also known as Panti Bliss, is Ireland’s foremost drag queen and LGBTI rights activist. (Rory O’Neill)
Rory O’Neill, also known as Panti Bliss, is Ireland’s foremost drag queen and LGBTI rights activist. (Rory O’Neill)

“Gay people have a lot of energy, talents, abilities and perspectives that they can contribute to Korea,” he said. “But at the moment, Korea is not allowing them to do that. The LGBTI people here that I have talked to said they don’t feel part of the society or culture here. They don’t feel they can get the kind of jobs they deserve, don’t feel welcome or respected. A lot of them are leaving Korea and not coming back. They are a resource that Korea is wasting.”

The purpose of his trip is to engage Korea’s LGBTI communities and share knowledge and experiences, the rights activist noted, adding his works around the world promote Ireland as an open, liberal, inclusive and progressive country.

“Some people say, ‘Why should I care?’ I think they should care because it’s good for your society to be open and tolerant. Different people bring different things to the table. They make our societies and economies more vibrant and competitive,” O’Neill stressed. “Our experience of opening up has definitely been a boon for Ireland -- socially, economically and culturally. Young, creative and talented people don’t want to live in repressive societies, they want to live and work in London, New York, Dublin, Toronto and California -- open and tolerant places where they can have diverse experiences.”

Most studies show that somewhere between 7 and 10 percent of people worldwide fall somewhere along the LGBTI spectrum, O’Neill pointed out.

From 1996 through 2012, O’Neill was the hostess of the annual Alternative Miss Ireland pageant. He regularly hosts the annual Dublin Pride celebrations, which take place in June. O’Neill is also the owner of a popular Dublin bar, Pantibar, which opened in 2007.

Although same-sex marriage is not permitted in Korea, homosexuality itself is not a crime.

By Joel Lee (
catch table
Korea Herald daum