Leo Varadkar’s announcement is a striking blow for honesty and decency

THE most remarkable thing about Minister for Health Leo Varadkar’s yes-I’m-gay announcement yesterday was that he felt the need to make it at all.

That the overwhelming reaction has been positive and cheeringly supportive might suggest that the declaration was unnecessary but because this is Ireland and because he is the first openly gay Government minister — but most of all, because he seems a confident, open, and honest person — it was a wise decision to offer the clarification.

Those who live their lives in political and media circles have known for some time, or at least assumed that they knew, that Mr Varadkar is gay, so the confirmation falls a long way short of being a revelation.

His brave confirmation does, though, remind us that we live in a society where it may not always be comfortable or even possible to be open about your sexual orientation.

It is a reminder, too, that as a referendum on same-sex marriage approaches there are those, thankfully a dwindling minority, who might try to use the fact that Mr Varadkaer had not clarified his position as leverage in the debate.

The fact that Mr Varadkar admitted to having some trepidation about making the announcement points to the nasty, bullying, and homophobic Ireland where being openly gay or lesbian is a reality that many isolated and sensitive souls cannot face.

The everyday school-yard taunt — gay! faggot!— so freely given by children who cannot understand what they are saying points to a learnt intolerance utterly unacceptable today.

That cruel, merciless taunt is a perfect example of how free speech might be, and is, abused — an issue brought centre stage by the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

That so many Irish gay people have been cold-shouldered— at the very least — by unsupportive or frightened families, communities, and employers points to another time when shame and isolation stood where love and support should have been; a time where the dominant force in shaping our mores was utterly hypocritical and belligerent on the issue. Attitudes have changed profoundly for the better, but it would be wrong to pretend that the issue has been resolved.

Much more needs to be done to confront those who suggest that this is a debate contrived by a liberal media to undermine traditional values.

It is, as US president Barack Obama so succinctly put it, the human rights issue of our time.

Mr Varadkar’s public coming-out was commendable but, because he is a powerful person in a largely supportive environment, it may not have required all of the courage shown by many others in far less supportive situations.

Those sportsmen and women who felt obliged to make their sexual orientation a matter of public record despite the deep conservatism of some of the members of the organisations they represented deserve particular praise for breaking the mould.

They were real trailblazers and without their courage Mr Varadkar may not have been as confident as he was yesterday.

He was the first member of an Irish cabinet who felt the need to make such a declaration.

How wonderful it would be if he was also the last one who felt feel obliged to do so.

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