A gay Taoiseach would be no big deal with many in Fine Gael. But a candid leader who tells it like it is might still be beyond their comprehension, writes Michael Clifford
IF Leo Varadkar doesn’t go on to serve as Taoiseach, it won’t be because he’s gay but because he’s straight.
Yesterday’s revelation on the public airwaves that he is a gay man was a surprise, but not a shock. Varadkar’s career in public life has been defined by his candour. That is a rare quality in the hyper-cautious milieu of Irish politics.
By and large, politicians edit their every comment for anything that might cause embarrassment for themselves, their party, and particularly their party’s hierarchy.
That compulsion has never been part of Varadkar’s tool kit. Even those who disagree with his politics accept that he is a straight talker.
So with a number of issues on the political calendar in which his sexuality might have arisen, particularly as a weapon against him or his politics, it was only a matter of time before he spoke publicly on the matter.
As he told Mirian O’Callaghan, forthcoming proposed legislation on surrogacy and allowing gay men to donate blood will inevitably demand comment from the Minister for Health. And then there is the big one, May’s referendum on same-sex marriage.
It’s easy to envisage what would have happened if passions on the same-sex marriage issue became inflamed. Any comment from Varadkar on the matter would have been likely to elicit reactions about his sexuality on forums such as Twitter, which is sometimes used as a graffiti wall.
Varadkar beat them to the punch. When a promo for O’Callaghan’s Sunday morning programme said Leo would be appearing to talk about his childhood and personal life, it was a guarantee that he would give voice to the love that once dared not speak its name.
After tracing the contours of his childhood, and running through a family background that includes an Indian father, Miriam gently probed about his private life.
“I am a gay man. It’s not a secret, but not something that everyone would necessarily know but isn’t something I’ve spoken publicly about before,” he told Miriam.
“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 doesn’t define me. It is part of my character I suppose.”
Despite the expectation that this was coming, it still prompted an intake of breadth.
A first always does. Two incumbents in the Dáil, Labour’s John Lyons, and Varadkar’s party colleague, Jerry Buttimer, have both spoken publicly about being gay.
In sport, former Cork hurler Donal Óg Cusask has led the way. But Varadkar is the most prominent public figure to feel compelled to publicly declare that his sexual orientation is not the presumed one.
That he has to do so speaks volumes for how far we have come and how much road is still ahead. Just over 20 years ago, homosexuality was still a criminal offence, which was officially deigned to be “practiced” by deviants, who through some character deficiency had strayed from the path of Adam and Eve.
In those days, a public declaration of homosexuality by a politician would be poltical hari kari, followed swiftly by a visit from An Garda Síochána.
The overwhelming reaction to yesterday’s announcement was positive, with all manner of political allies and opponents congratulating Varadkar on his courage and candour. The smart money says the public revelation will not impact negatively on his career, and that is another signal of how society has matured.
When exactly attitudes advanced to the point where a public figure’s sexuality is a relatively minor issue is not clear. Would a gay minister’s declaration 10 years ago have received the relatively uniform reaction that Varadkar’s did?
We do know that the acceptance that gay marriage as an issue of equality is relatively recent, having swept across the western world in only the last three or four years. That evolving opinion has, among other things, surely made it easier for those who feel that a public declaration on their sexuality is necessary.
What was revealing yesterday was Varadkar’s account of the reaction to the news from Enda Kenny, whom he had informed in the last few days.
Kenny apparently intimated that he already knew and that it was a private matter for Varadkar that would not impact on his work.
“He asked me had I been to Panti bar,” Leo told Miriam. Kenny had visited the bar owned by Rory O’Neill, aka Panti Bliss, with Buttimer last December for Fine Gael’s LBGT group’s Christmas party.
Varadkar confessed that he hadn’t been there.
“There you go, Varadkar, I’m ahead of you already.”
Well done Minister Leo Varadkar. He didn't just come out on the radio (he was already out) but he just spoke about publicly for first time.— Dr Panti Bliss-Cabrera (@PantiBliss) January 18, 2015
It was typical Kenny, folksy, corny, but also an attempt to shoo away any awkwardness about the substance of their conversation.
The Taoiseach is a 63-year-old conservative politician from rural Ireland, and his reaction was typical of how far the whole country has travelled in its acceptance of diversity.
On the other hand, the fact that Varadkar had to make a public declaration which would inevitably become huge news points to the road not yet travelled.
Many of yesterday’s headlines referred to Varadkar “coming out”. The phrase is no longer accompanied by “the closet” but that is still the implication. Some day, the closet may be completely dismantled.
As for Varadkar’s prospects of one day holding the top job, don’t bet on it. Yesterday was his 36th birthday and he told Miriam that he can’t see himself in politics at the age of 51. This infers he is not a career politician, which separates him from practically all the modern-day holders of the office — Kenny, Brian Cowen, Bertie Ahern, John Bruton, and Charles Haughey.
Varadkar’s candour is another matter. Remember, this is the man who last April called the garda whistleblower controversy as it was, referring to the two men involved as “distinguished”, as opposed to the “disgusting” characterisation by the then commissioner.
While the public largely applauded Varadkar’s intervention, many in Government were more concerned with the controversy it generated.
If he is out of politics by the age of 51, he has 15 years to get to and serve in the top job. To do so he will have to overcome prejudices that still persist.
A gay Taoiseach would be no big deal with his party colleagues. A leader who speaks his mind and tells it like it is might still be beyond their comprehension.
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