Monday 16 September 2019

Donal Lynch: 'The tact Leo showed Pence is hardwired into every gay man'

Leo Varadkar's deft handling of Mike Pence is probably the gayest thing he's ever done, writes Donal Lynch

DEFT HANDLING: Leo Varadkar and Mike Pence last week. Picture: PA
DEFT HANDLING: Leo Varadkar and Mike Pence last week. Picture: PA
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

When we look back on the premiership of Leo Varadkar, the thing that might stand out the most is his almost superhuman tact. No other taoiseach has had to make nice with former friends - America and Britain - who seem to have gone off the deep end in the most dangerous way imaginable.

Like Amy Adams in Arrival, Varadkar has had to access previously unknown peaks of diplomacy as a procession of scary creatures - Trump, Pence and, tomorrow, Johnson - bring their spaceships to town. A future Reeling in the Years will record Leo reacting to their bluster and bombast - Trump referring to the Border as "our wall" or Pence asking us to negotiate with the British in "good faith" - with the same blank-faced calm that the child hostages offered Saddam Hussein's famous meet-and-greet. Varadkar's only comfort during these deeply awkward encounters might be that the world watching knew all along that he was the adult in the room.

Leo's supreme tact is probably also a consequence of his sexuality. "Discreet" used to be the Irish gay slang for ''in the closet'' - something Leo was well into his 30s - but the word also had kinder overtones of treading softly and carefully in a judgmental world and of avoiding embarrassment and confrontation.

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There are probably elements of Ireland's liberal mob - who took to Twitter in their hordes last week - which felt the Taoiseach could have been harder on Pence's homophobia. Iceland, it was pointed out, welcomed the US vice-president with a line of rainbow flags. But it's unfair to expect protest in every situation.

It was sort of presumed in the wake of the marriage referendum that every gay person was part of an activist army, ready to assert their rights and confront bigotry where required. In fact, that approach would wear you out. Part and parcel of being gay was always nurturing the instinct of when to gently challenge someone, and when to pretend that you didn't even clock their homophobia.

Travelling to the airport while being forced to listen to a barely veiled anti-gay diatribe from the taxi driver? Definitely not worth the emotional energy. Hearing a co-worker complain about how "angry" gay people have become during the marriage referendum? Laugh it off in the name of collegial peace. Breakfasting with a US vice-president who doesn't think you should be allowed to teach in a school or serve openly in the military? Close your eyes and focus on all that lovely foreign direct investment.

Part of this pragmatic approach is understanding that we all, including gay people themselves, exist on a continuum of homophobia. During the visit this week, Pence was portrayed as some kind of evangelical aberration, and the rule about not being in a room with a woman who is not his wife does sound deeply weird. But his views on gay people are not all that different from 1990s-era Bill Clinton, or, indeed, 2000s-era Hillary Clinton, both of whom are considered liberal heroes, great friends of Ireland and both of whom commanded Pope-like crowds on College Green when they visited.

Bill brought in Don't Ask, Don't Tell - which Pence supports - and Hillary waited until she was well into her presidential campaign before openly supporting gay marriage. Then there is our own dark history, including the Supreme Court's judgments in the Norris case, the horror of the Fairview Park murder and our very belated support for marriage equality.

The child psychologist, Jean Piaget, noted that children tend to be disgusted when other children don't know things that they themselves have just learned. There is something of that in our disgust at Pence. In the long, dark march of history, it's been mere moments since we, as a nation, had similar views to him on the subject of gay rights. We probably wouldn't have taken too kindly to being challenged or confronted either.

Pence has been associated with conversion therapy - a now mostly outlawed practice in which gay people are ''counselled'' out of their sexuality. Broaching the subject of gay rights with him would be like talking about geography with someone who thinks the Earth is flat.

And Varadkar understood this. His gentle blind eye to the VP's social conservatism might be the gayest thing he's ever done.

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