Wednesday

21st Nov 2018

Analysis

So what if the Irish PM is gay?

  • Leo Varadkar celebrates with party members after he was elected leader of Ireland's Fine Gael party and PM of Ireland. (Photo: Reuters)

Europe will get a second openly gay head of government on Wednesday (14 June).

The sexual orientation of Leo Varadkar, the new Taoiseach (prime minister) of Ireland, has grabbed more international headlines than his political ideas.

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  • Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron pose for Paris Match, before the presidential campaign. (Photo: Paris Match)

His election symbolises a huge change of heart for the staunchly Catholic country, where homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1993.

To boot, the new Taoiseach is the son of an Indian immigrant (a doctor) and the country's youngest ever leader, at age 38.

But it does not mean his reign will be marked by gay rights or minority struggles or a fight against ageism, for that matter.

Varadkar has consistently played down the importance of his sexuality.

He came out in 2015, as Ireland prepared to cast the historic vote that legalised same-sex marriages.

"It's not something that defines me. I'm not a half-Indian politician, or a doctor politician or a gay politician for that matter … It's just part of who I am, it is part of my character I suppose," he said at the time.

On 2 June, in his acceptance speech of the Fine Gael leadership post that made him a PM, he said he was grateful that in Ireland he could be "judged by his character" and not his "origins and identity".

"Any politician aiming for the top wants to avoid being seen as the representative of minority interests," says David Paternotte, associate professor of sociology at the Universite libre de Bruxelles.

"This is why, historically, the strongest politicians-proponents of gay rights have been straight white women."

A Nato photo opportunity

The other current gay head of government in Europe, or in the wider world for that matter, is Xavier Bettel, prime minister of Luxembourg.

Bettel was the third openly gay head of state in history after Johanna Sigurdardottir, former PM of Iceland, and Elio Di Rupo, who held the same position but in Belgium.

However, Bettel was the first to marry a partner while in office, a few months after Luxembourg passed same-sex legislation under his reign.

Before his wedding, he carefully stressed that the bill had been prepared by a previous government (of current European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker).

"I'm not a gay minister. My sexual orientation is no reason whether I'm elected or not elected. I do politics in favour of all the people, not one lobby group," the Luxembourger has said.

This hasn't stopped Bettel from every now and then making public appearances with his husband, Belgian architect Gauthier Destenay.

In May, Luxembourg's first husband posed for a group photo with the wives of Nato leaders - including Melania Trump.

The summit marked the first foreign visit of US president Donald Trump, known, among other things, for his chauvinistic views on women.

Bettel, on the other hand, was elected based on a pledge of being a modernising force for Luxembourg. The Nato photo went viral, lending the Grand Duchy leader an aura of progress and equality.

The White House, in response, omitted the name of the first husband from a Facebook post which carried the photograph and which named the other spouses.

The post was eventually edited after widespread criticism and accusations of homophobia.

Spouses of Nato leaders pose during the recent summit. (Photo: Nato)

Oikos and polis

Bettel's move could be seen in the light of historical stereotypes.

The distinction between public and private is as old as democracy.

Aristotle distinguished between "oikos" and "polis", the household and the city. He argued that the state should stay out of family business, and the idea that "what happens at home remains private" still holds strong today.

"But this doesn't prevent politicians from staging their personal life for the public gaze," Paternotte said. "And they always did."

From the 16th century and until the reign of Marie Antoinette, French queens were expected to give birth before an audience, whose official task was to ensure that the royal child was not swapped for someone else.

Historical writings testify that the queen's "privilege" was often a traumatic experience.

Modern leaders prefer to stage a different image.

"Traditionally, European statesmen have projected themselves as family fathers, and this is still how most of them want to be seen today," Paternotte said.

Such images appeal to some right-wing voters, who see the state as a family writ large, and households as miniature societies with a ruler and subjects.

Gay leaders are not the only ones breaking against this image.

British PM Theresa May, German chancellor Angela Merkel and, most recently, French president Emmanuel Macron, have all had to deal with charges that their lack of offspring makes them unfit for office.

"He talks to us about the future, but he doesn't have children!" Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the French far-right National Front party, roared in the run-up to French presidential elections.

In the next breath, he promoted the candidacy of his daughter Marine as a "mere de famille" [mother and housewife].

Similar antics have been used by German far-right leader Frauke Petry. The mother-of-four, who is currently expecting another child, last year tried in vain to challenge the chancellor's image as "Mutti" [mum] to all the Germans.

The trick failed even more spectacularly for Andrea Leadsom, who killed her bid to become the next UK Conservative party leader, and prime minister, after having talked about May's "really sad" lack of children.

In Macron's case as well, the attacks backfired.

Faced with a huge media interest in his love life, he managed to project his marriage to an older woman as an example of a modern family - notably allowing French tabloid Paris Match to picture him feeding a bottle to one of his step-grandchildren.

And when Russian state propaganda outlet Sputnik launched a rumour that Macron was gay, he brushed it off as a joke - while denouncing in much stronger terms the bigotry of those using "gay" as something negative.

Are gay leaders good for gay rights?

So what difference does it make to have a gay prime minister?

"I think there are different ways of viewing the question," says Terry Reintke, a German Green MEP.

"The fact that Angela Merkel is chancellor of Germany is a huge achievement for the feminist movement. But Merkel herself isn't a feminist and we haven't seen huge gains for women under her mandate," the Green politician said, "just like electing Barack Obama didn't change everything for black people in the USA."

"Still, I think it had a huge impact - not least inside the European Parliament - when [Green Austrian] Ulrike Lunacek became vice president of the European Parliament. Many of my colleagues were talking about it, even if Lunacek came out [as a lesbian] a long time ago."

Reintke, who defines herself as queer (an umbrella term for non-heterosexual people), said she had herself used her romantic life to make points in political debates, and would likely do it more often if it were not so risky.

"One has to be aware that by granting people insights, you make yourself a target, and you need to be prepared to deal with the consequences," she said.

"Besides, this doesn't only depend on me. My girlfriends and boyfriends have had very different attitudes with our relationship becoming a public matter," Reintke said.

The risks of sharing personal information include rejection by voters, hatred and threats.

Lunacek, the Green vice-president, has been attacked with acid, while Fredrick Federley, a liberal MEP who was one of Sweden's first openly gay politicians, has been abused outside his home.

Staying in the closet can be equally dangerous, however.

Paternotte said it wasn't unusual for gay politicians to come out to prevent their sexual orientation being used against them by press.

"Journalists were, for example, spreading wild rumours about Elio Di Rupo, including that he was a part of Belgium's paedophile scandal in the 1990s. In the end, he had to come out to stop the smears," he said.

"Interestingly, that made him more popular among Flemish people and he could become prime minister of Belgium a few years later."

When Nikki Sinclaire came out as the EU parliament's first transsexual MEP, she said she did it after threats from journalists and party colleagues. Sinclaire was elected for the UK Independence Party (Ukip) in 2009 and left the parliament in 2014.

French National Front party heavyweight and MEP, Florian Philippot, on the other hand, was harassed by French gossip press until they had gathered enough material to out him as being gay.

The benefits of openness

So what are the benefits of talking about their own experiences?

Coming out of the closet is said to be one of the main ways to fight homophobia. People who know at least one non-heterosexual person are much more supportive of LGBTI rights than those who know none.

Federley, the Swedish MEP, said there was nothing peculiar about the fact that he spoke about his rainbow family, or shared pictures of them on his social media accounts.

"I will obviously take my own family as an example to illustrate the legal loopholes that still exist today in Sweden. Politics is a lot about providing proof: I know what I am taking about, I have insights. Personal examples are much stronger than the purely anecdotal".

But some things should stay private, Federley said.

"I'm public from the time I wake up, until the moment I go to sleep. Everything I do is reviewed and questioned. So you need something that's only your own."

This story is partly based on 'Personpolitik', an article by Aleksandra Eriksson for Swedish magazine Ottar, issue 3/2015.

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