Saturday 20 January 2018

Comment: It is rubbish to say Varadkar's sexuality isn’t a very symbolic footnote in his story – and the story of modern Ireland

Far from being that conservative Catholic rock on the periphery of Europe, Ireland is now leading the world in social progress, writes Brian O'Reilly

Leo Varadkar with his partner Dr Matthew Barrett at the count centre yesterday. Photo: Mark Condren
Leo Varadkar with his partner Dr Matthew Barrett at the count centre yesterday. Photo: Mark Condren
Leo Varadkar with his parents Ashok and Miriam at the Mansion House yesterday. Photo: Gareth Chaney
Socially, Leo Varadkar is not naturally gregarious and sometimes his shyness can be perceived as aloofness. But he is capable of personal charm and is clearly working on his social skills and learning to be more gregarious.
The ‘New York Times’ headline read: “Gay lawmaker, Leo Varadkar, is in line to be Ireland’s Prime Minister.” Picture: PA
Brian O'Reilly

Brian O'Reilly

A GAY man will be Taoiseach and Ireland has surely taken another step in casting off the vestiges of its conservative Catholic past.

It’s a passing of the torch generationally, as he is not only set to become the youngest Taoiseach in the history of the State, but his appointment also represents a historic moment socially.

Far from being that conservative Catholic rock on the periphery of Europe, Ireland is now leading the world in social progress.

The openly gay son of an Indian immigrant is set to ascend to the highest office in the land.

The suggestion a gay person could become Taoiseach would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.

I’ve always been an avid follower of politics and got my closest glimpse of it when a close school friend began working in an openly gay local councillor’s office in the run-up to the 2007 General Election.

Leo Varadkar with his parents Ashok and Miriam at the Mansion House yesterday. Photo: Gareth Chaney
Leo Varadkar with his parents Ashok and Miriam at the Mansion House yesterday. Photo: Gareth Chaney

I was fascinated with the inner workings of a political campaign, even on a local level, and enjoyed the regular updates of constituency issues and the daily life of a local politician.

While she enjoyed the work and I enjoyed living vicariously through the updates, things took a sour note as the general

election campaign kicked off.

She began to struggle with reading through the homophobic hate mail the office started to regularly receive – we’re talking hellfire and brimstone stuff here.

The ‘New York Times’ headline read: “Gay lawmaker, Leo Varadkar, is in line to be Ireland’s Prime Minister.” Picture: PA
The ‘New York Times’ headline read: “Gay lawmaker, Leo Varadkar, is in line to be Ireland’s Prime Minister.” Picture: PA
Leo Varadkar has been talked about for the highest political office since he was first elected to the Dáil in May 2007. Picture: Gerry Mooney

One particularly gruesome letter they received appeared to have been written in blood – or at least the writer intended it to appear that way.

Homophobic graffiti was also regularly scrolled on the outside of his office by cowards under the cover of darkness.

I couldn’t comprehend how someone could detest someone so much for their sexuality that they would go out of their way to send them threatening, anonymous abuse.

As someone about to sit my Leaving Cert that year, I found it eye-opening that despite how far our economy had developed in the previous decade, our social conscience seemingly lagged far behind.

Socially, Leo Varadkar is not naturally gregarious and sometimes his shyness can be perceived as aloofness. But he is capable of personal charm and is clearly working on his social skills and learning to be more gregarious.
Socially, Leo Varadkar is not naturally gregarious and sometimes his shyness can be perceived as aloofness. But he is capable of personal charm and is clearly working on his social skills and learning to be more gregarious.

We’d advanced so much economically, yet some still felt it was OK to write threatening letters to someone based on their sexuality.

A year later, I would go on to study politics in UCD and become involved in youth politics – but the experience of 2007 had removed any notions I might ever have had of ever running for office.

I’d consider myself a fairly tough person, but would never willingly subject myself or my family to the level of abuse or hatred that councillor went through. So I decided that despite my passion for it, politics wouldn’t be for me.

In 2007, gay role models were mainly confined to the world of showbiz and entertainment – in that respect, nothing had changed for several decades. Singers and TV presenters took much of the public limelight for gay people.

In the decade since, athletes, business leaders and other public figures have come out.

There’s nothing wrong with being the comic relief in public life – but it’s important that young gay people see the horizon stretches far beyond that.

Leo Varadkar’s decision to come out publicly in 2015 was a huge turning point in Irish public life.

There had been other high-profile gay politicians but there had never been an openly gay Cabinet minister.

While it may seem like a distant memory now, there were murmurings even then of whether his decision to come out would cost him any hopes of being Taoiseach.

Politics should be about leadership and courage, and Leo showed this in spades at what many took to be considerable risk to his future career.

Leo’s sexuality has no bearing on his ability to succeed – or fail – in the role of Taoiseach. He is Fine Gael leader on merit, he will fail or succeed based on his own unique attributes.

However, the Taoiseach being gay holds massive symbolic importance to a generation of gay people who may have believed their sexuality meant they weren’t good enough or acceptable enough to reach the top of certain professions – those who felt their sexuality would limit how far they could go in Irish life.

Those who believed – and many who continue to believe – their sexuality would define them and limit them.

It matters to parents who love gay sons and daughters but who worried about whether they’d be treated differently and discriminated against in the outside world.

I wish I could go back and tell my Leaving Cert self in 2007 that far from being subjected to homophobic abuse, a gay person would reach the highest office in the land within a decade.

I’m a cynic, so I have no doubt I would have given up on politics eventually – but at least it would have been for the right reasons.

That’s not to say Leo won’t be subjected to abuse for his sexuality – the anonymous letter writers of 2007 have become the anonymous online trolls of 2017.

But it’s the knowledge that their day has passed; Ireland of 2017 is a different place – far from perfect, but steadily moving in the right direction.

Of course, Leo shouldn’t be thought of or remembered as “the gay Taoiseach” – he’ll be a Taoiseach who happened to be gay.

However, to say his sexuality isn’t a very symbolic footnote in his story – and the story of modern Ireland – is rubbish.

It’s an important historical footnote in the way Margaret Thatcher becoming the first female British prime minister or Barack Obama the first African American US president was symbolic.

It shouldn’t determine how their legacies are viewed, or shield them from criticism while in office (and in the former examples, it certainly didn’t).

But for many gay people in Ireland, it will represent a true shift in the social landscape. Leo’s election isn’t as momentous as the passing of the marriage referendum in 2015, but it’s a major milestone in an important journey Ireland has taken since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993.

While many glass ceilings remain in Irish life, another major one has just been broken

Online Editors

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