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Reflections on PantiGate

11/02/2014 12:00 GMT | Updated 12/04/2014 10:59 BST

Quite an extensive hullabaloo has been made over the past few weeks here in Ireland, or even, if you might, a tremendous Pantimonium. As though some extraordinary animal has chanced its way into your back garden, at first you react uneasy at its unpredictability, inviting thoughts of apprehension. After time, one recognizes its importance, and appreciates its being there as valuable. A controversy has seen the Irish people debate homophobia a way in which it has not done so in quite some time. Our Celtic answer to RuPaul ; Panti Bliss, or Rory O'Neill, when not in drag, ignited controversy a few weeks ago when he gave an interview on The Saturday Night Show on RTE, Ireland's publicly funded state broadcaster. O'Neill accused two journalists and a Catholic lobby group of homophobia. They made complaints and RTE settled the case, paying 85,000 euros (£70,000) of public funds in compensation for defamation. Part of the interview was removed from the RTE website and many referred to it as censorship. There apparently has been some dispute between one of the journalists and RTE regarding how the financial decision came about, and as of the other night, a transcript of an older interview with that journalist went viral on Twitter, sparking anger from many because of its ignorant and crass nature. The tide of favor, over time, certainly flowed in Panti's direction, nationally and internationally.

The pay-out was the subject of discussion in Ireland's parliament, the Dail, last Thursday, from where I sat in the gallery, and watched as two of our parliamentarians spoke of their own experiences of homophobic bullying and abuse. An Irish member of the European Parliament also raised the issue, and it got mentioned in the Irish Senate. One of the Irishmen whom I admire most, Senator David Norris, appeared on national television and revealed that he had been "queer bashed" many times, and highlighted figures of depression, self-harm, and suicide, and how homophobic bullying was connected to them. Norris, a resilient and imperishable inspiration for so many, also spoke at a rally I attended last weekend in Dublin city centre, and I must say it was very moving hearing him give a powerhouse of a speech knowing he fought fiercely for the rights of a marginal's minority, which engendered in the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Ireland.

Panti Bliss is to be admired. Throughout the whole controversy, Panti has carried herself with the utmost dignity and courage. I have always believed in equal rights for all our citizens. If you say that my gay friends should be prohibited from having the same legal entitlements as I have, you are saying they are less worthy citizens. Two people of the same sex can fall in love, and it should be respected for that reason. Opposition to these legal rights are hateful in their very nature. They are hateful. There was much discussion about what homophobia actually is across Irish media, and it is very important that there is a debate in which neither side is silenced, regardless of the opinions held. Some commentators seemed to have trouble identifying what homophobia is, opting to depress it of including what one might call "lower" or "less extreme" forms of homophobic bullying. Embarrassment took me while having to watch some of these interviews. What would international media think of the caliber of our discussion if this was among the best we had to offer? It was, though, so gratifying to see someone from a minority here and of our small nation, get such brilliant and supportive coverage from foreign media.

Free speech should be respected, if not the particular viewpoints, regardless of what you believe. You have the right to express your opinion, but you do not have the right not to be called out on that opinion, nor not to have it challenged. You also have no right not to be offended, and if you happen to be so, that does not mean you are right. Last evening, I was canvassing on behalf of a friend, for our local elections this May, and one lady, of an elegant appearance and speaking in a nice parlance, confronted him on the basis that the party of which he is a member supported same-sex marriage equality. Our transaction became soured when she began to become hysterical and said that if we wanted to know what the definition of marriage is, we should "look in the eff-ing dictionary". Ordinary moral people's prejudices sometimes makes them feel as though they are entitled to do or say disgusting, wicked, and morally shameful things. Many religious conservatives tend to feel their religion gives them the right to get away with saying things of that complexion. This lady seemed to think so. I for one, feel the right to call them on it as long as they act so in public.

On a succeeding episode of The Saturday Night Show, there was a panel discussion held on the topic of homophobia. The honorable human rights campaigner Colm O'Gorman, read out a definition used by the EU Parliament:

"homophobia can be defined as an irrational fear of and aversion to homosexuality and to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people based on prejudice and similar to racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and sexism.

. . Homophobia manifests itself in the private and public spheres in different forms, such as hate speech and incitement to discrimination, ridicule and verbal, psychological and physical violence, persecution and murder, discrimination in violation of the principle of equality and unjustified and unreasonable limitations of rights, which are often hidden behind justifications based on public order, religious freedom and the right to conscientious objection"

In a touching and powerful speech last week at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, O'Neill as Panti, described the oppression gay people feel every day in a very relatable way. Making the point that we are all a bit homophobic, and naturally, each of us to a different degree, and he also mentioned that straight people are subject to homophobic bullying as well. It really was deftly moving and is perfectly illustrative of how connected we are all of us as human beings. Compassion and dignity are things of which we need be mindful in our dealings with each other. The speech has garnered over 400,000 views. Getting around like Chinese whispers on speed. The video has been translated into multiple languages. Stephen Fry, Dara O Briain, Madonna, Gay Byrne, Graham Norton, and RuPaul are among the high profile figures to endorse the speech. It should be shown in schools the country over, it is education required. It has such an important and necessary message, and it is given by a drag queen, which is unusual in Ireland. We must be able to respect ourselves before we can respect anyone else. Civilization depends partly on cherishing dignity for all human life.

If anyone condemns any of my gay friends, or any person whom has a same sex preference, for their nature, that means that they are being discriminated against because not for what they do, but because of who they are. This is disgraceful. This is prejudicial. This is immoral. This is unacceptable. Every person has the right to live their life with dignity. Difference should be celebrated. Free speech should be defended. Panti Bliss has invited us to reflect on the repercussions of how we act, and who we are. And as for Panti, I have much respect, indeed.