Wednesday 23 January 2019

The love that dare not speak its name... with US Republicans

The Taoiseach chose his moments carefully when considering when, and when not, to address gay rights while in the United States, writes Philip Ryan

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and United States President Donald J. Trump. Photo: Getty Images
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and United States President Donald J. Trump. Photo: Getty Images
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

US Representative Peter King did not join the applauding crowd when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar described how honoured he was to attend the Gay Pride festival in Belfast last year.

In fact, Mr King was the only speaker sitting on the stage in the Library of Congress who did not clap when Mr Varadkar spoke of the need for marriage equality rights for the citizens of Northern Ireland.

Gerry Adams applauded, as did former US special envoy to Northern Ireland George Mitchell and former Ulster Unionist Party (UPP) leader Mike Nesbitt, who were also sitting on the stage. The vast majority of the audience, including Sinn Fein bigwigs Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill, also put their hands together for the Taoiseach's remarks.

But not Congressman King. He just sat and stared. He also looked unimpressed when SDLP leader Colum Eastwood had a mild dig at the Trump administration. Everyone else had a bit of a giggle at the rotating door human resource problems in the White House.

King sits on the ultra-conservative wing of the Republican Party. He has opposed and voted against same sex marriage and gay rights legislation throughout his career. Immigration is also one of his bugbears and he has been making divisive remarks about Islam long before Trump dreamt up his Muslim ban. However, throughout the two hours of the event, Varadkar chatted politely with King.

He actually found him quite charming and there was no unnecessary tension between the two men. Varadkar had to play friendly with King.

The annual St Patrick's Day visit to America is as much about diplomacy as it is about trade. Irish taoisigh and ministers are expected to pull on their green jerseys and give it a bit of 'begorrah and begosh' when talking to the US dignitaries. We want them to think the Irish are a grand bunch of fellas who they should trust with investment capital and jobs. So a little bit of bigotry is forgiven.

However, the Taoiseach's sexuality and Ireland's marriage equality referendum adds a new dimension. As one of the few openly gay leaders, the Taoiseach stands apart when he meets other heads of state. He is not only representing Ireland. He is also a figurehead for a historically maligned community who only in recent years are beginning to achieve equality. But it is a difficult tightrope walk for the Taoiseach when he comes face-to-face with conservative politicians in the US.

Last Sunday, the Taoiseach visited the Governor of Texas Greg Abbott in his fortified mansion in Austin. The wheelchair-bound Republican governor is very much on the conservative side of the political spectrum. One example of his views would be legislation he recently tried to enact which would force transgender people to use public toilets matching their biological identity. His so-called 'Bathroom Bill' didn't get very far but not due to a lack of effort. Varadkar didn't get into LGBT rights with the Governor. Instead, he accepted a Texas Ranger's belt buckle as a gift which he proudly wore after the meeting.

Later that day, the Taoiseach did speak passionately about gay rights but it was in the comfortable surroundings of hipster music and technology festival South by Southwest.

In a room full of young liberals and techie types, Varadkar said he always viewed as America a "beacon of freedom" and noted the country was the home of the LGBT movement.

The Taoiseach then added: "It is really tough to see a country that is built on freedom, and built on individual freedom somehow not being a world leader in that space any more."

Cutting remarks, yes, but delivered to an audience who share his views. The next day, the Taoiseach and his entourage drove the dusty Texas highways to Oklahoma so he could thank the Choctaw Nation for their support during the Great Famine. Before meeting the tribe, he paid a visit to the Governor of Oklahoma, Mary Fallin. The Governor staunchly opposes marriage equality and fought strongly against a recent Supreme Court ruling which essentially forced her to give LGBT rights to her constituents. However, again, the Taoiseach did not use the opportunity to raise gay rights with the Governor. Varadkar's biggest test was the traditional Vice-President's breakfast in Mike Pence's residence in Washington DC. Mr Pence is a devout Christian who has opposed LGBT rights throughout his political career.

The Taoiseach's officials were taken aback when the Vice-President's office told them he would be breaking with tradition and holding the meeting behind closed doors. Up to last year, the breakfast was a media opportunity which could be reported to the public. Despite the efforts of Department of Foreign Affairs officials, Pence insisted on the private meeting.

Varadkar and Pence first met in the White House after his meeting with US President Donald Trump. After the Oval Office photo opportunity, Varadkar, Trump and their closest advisers gathered to discuss trade, migration and the President's golf course in Doonbeg, Co Clare. Trump's chief of staff John Kelly was there, as was Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney. Varadkar brought his chief of staff Brian Murphy, press adviser Nick Miller, Department of the Taoiseach secretary Martin Fraser and Irish Envoy to the US John Deasy.

The conversation focused on migration with Trump clearing the way for the drafting of legislation aimed at helping undocumented Irish in America. Varadkar also proposed a new trade deal between the EU and the US which Trump didn't rule out but he did insist his country is losing out when it comes to international trade deals.

LGBT rights didn't come up. However, a few hours later, Varadkar had a brief chat with Pence and his wife Karen. Pence inquired as to why the Taoiseach's partner Dr Matthew Barrett had not accompanied him to White House. Varadkar informed them that his partner was unable to get time off work in the busy hospital where he works in Chicago. Pence then told the Taoiseach both men would be welcome in his home should they decide to return to Washington for next year's St Patrick's Day festivities. It was quite a step for a politician accused of supporting groups who believe in conversion therapy for gay people. The Taoiseach was surprised but graciously accepted the invite. He did not lecture the Vice-President or seek to convert him on marriage equality.

On Friday, the Taoiseach visited the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York. The bar, which is now a national monument, was the scene of a famous riot in which oppressed members of the gay and lesbian community clashed with police after a raid on the premises.

The balancing act will continue should the Taoiseach return to the US next year but perhaps he will use his position to continue the legacy of those who fought in the Stonewall Inn riot.

Sunday Independent

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