Thursday 19 April 2018

Comment: Why Leo Varadkar having a boyfriend does matter

Matthew Barrett (left) and Leo Varadkar pictured on holidays
Matthew Barrett (left) and Leo Varadkar pictured on holidays
Leo Varadkar's partner Matthew Barrett on top of Croagh Patrick
Leo Varadkar's partner Dr Matthew Barrett
Leo Varadkar with his partner Matt Barrett. Photo: Facebook pic
Brian O'Reilly

Brian O'Reilly

"Why is this news?"

This was one of the regular comments greeting a story published on this website about Leo Varadkar's boyfriend.

The suggestion being that the partner of any heterosexual politician wouldn't be greeted as such big news.

And you know what? It probably wouldn't.

Leo Varadkar at a colleague's wedding in Dublin. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Leo Varadkar at a colleague's wedding in Dublin. Photo: Gerry Mooney

The partner of any Taoiseach is subject to public attention- Enda Kenny's wife Fionnuala's movements have been dissected on state visits, while Bertie Ahern's former partner Celia Larkin regularly hit headlines.

More recently, Health Minister Simon Harris' engagement announcement to nurse Caoimhe Wade was given column inches across multiple titles last summer.

On an international scale, the media have reported on well known other halves of political leaders including Michelle Obama, Samantha Cameron, Theresa May's husband Philip and current US First Lady Melania Trump.

I get the objections; people feel that Leo's partner shouldn't be treated any differently to those of the other leadership candidates - the passing mention of a partner, rather than a full article.

Fionnuala Kenny (L), the Taoiseach Enda Kenny's wife, and lady Michelle Obama walk in the garden at Farmeligh May 23, 2011
Fionnuala Kenny (L), the Taoiseach Enda Kenny's wife, and lady Michelle Obama walk in the garden at Farmeligh May 23, 2011

But the fact Leo Varadkar has a boyfriend is different.

Should he be treated differently because of it? No.

Does it matter whether they attend events together? No.

The man is perhaps on the cusp of history - he could be just the fourth openly gay head of government anywhere in the world.

And just like Barack Obama's historic election victory mattered on a symbolic level, Leo Varadkar's ascension to the highest elected office in the land would matter.

Not only to gay people, but to their parents and families.

Parents who might have had concerns that their son or daughter's sexuality could cause them trouble in life.

Would they be treated differently to others? Would they not be able to achieve their ambitions because other people might take issue with their sexuality? Will they be judged? 

Leo Varadkar's partner Matthew Barrett on top of Croagh Patrick
Leo Varadkar's partner Matthew Barrett on top of Croagh Patrick

Above all it matters because should he become Fine Gael leader, it will be on merit.

He will be a Taoiseach who happens to be gay, not a gay Taoiseach.

"I'd hoped we'd moved past this" was another of the well-intended comments frequently seen - that Leo Varakar being gay doesn't matter.

But it does matter, because he made it matter. He came out prior to the marriage equality referendum at what many would have been seen as considerable risk to his political ambitions. But he did it anyway. And that takes fortitude and courage - something sorely lacking from many in Leinster House.

His coming out proved that gay people aren't confined to rising to the top of the entertainment world, but the political one as well. Gay people aren't the comic relief in public life.

In the way that Donal Óg Cusack broke down barriers in the sporting world, so did Leo Varadkar in the political sphere.

So him being gay does matter. It doesn't matter when it comes to him doing his job - and it shouldn't shield him from criticism.

But it matters.

I understand the well-intended criticism the article received, that his 'gayness' shouldn't be an issue - and it shouldn't be an issue in any practical sense.

"Clearly you are supporting the other candidate", one comment responding to the piece said.

This line of criticism suggested the article was an attempt to de-rail his chances at winning the leadership, a 'smear' campaign to make rural Ireland uncomfortable with his 'gayness'. The only smear being cast with that assertion is that rural Ireland is somehow endemically homophobic. That being gay would cost someone votes.

Being gay doesn't matter at the ballot box or internal party politics. We know this because Leo Varadkar has already proved it. And that matters.

Online Editors

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section