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Terry Prone: News is no big deal for Leo Varadkar - but a very big deal for Ireland

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Leo Varadkar

Leo Varadkar

Leo Varadkar

It was a contradiction in terms, what Leo Varadkar did yesterday.

You could hear in his voice his appreciation of the paradox he was in. On the one hand he was announcing he was gay and on the other making it as far from an announcement as humanly possible.

He was saying it wasn’t that big a deal to him and it shouldn’t be to anyone else, knowing well that the story would rocket to the top of the headlines in record time.

The great thing about the contradiction was that it could not have existed 20 years ago.

For starters, 20 years ago, it’s doubtful if even a Fine Gael Minister as popular as Leo is could have made such a public statement. If he had, the chances were slim that his colleagues would have been falling over themselves to welcome it or – just as significantly – to ignore it while wishing him a happy birthday. 

Twenty years ago, of course, people had bad thoughts but no social media on which to express them. But it was remarkable how relatively small the numbers of anti-gay comments made on those channels were yesterday.

For the most part, the revelation was welcomed and Leo was complimented.

Of course the issue was ethics as well as courage. The single sex marriage referendum would inevitably empower questioners to ask about the Minister’s sexuality, and he would never have been comfortable asking people to vote a particular way without informing them that he had a necessarily personal interest in the issue.

So he did the right thing and didn’t hedge his bets in how he did it.

That he could even countenance doing so shows how far this country has come. Not in tolerance, because the very use of that word implies an elitist beneficence: we, the straight, will tolerate you, the gay.

Not in compassion, for the same reason: we, the straight, know you, the gay, face tough times, so we will be kind to you. What has happened is that gay people have become Us, rather than Them.

Fifty years go, gay people were not Us and they also were not gay. They were homosexual and they were criminal.

Twenty five years ago, when I began working with members of the gay community, they were still criminalised. They were deeply dismayed when Charlie Haughey appointed Maire Geoghegan-Quinn Minister for Justice. Fianna Fail were never going to change the law, and a woman certainly wasn’t.

glorious

I remember laughing and saying that this was like winning the lottery. MGQ was first last and always a mother. All they needed was to send two mothers to meet her to tell her the realities of having a gay son and living in dread of his arrest.

Two middle-aged mothers went to meet her. She listened. As they stood up to go, she promised them that if she did nothing else in politics, she would change the law. And she did.

That was the glorious beginning. Even if the referendum gives the country equal marriage, it won’t be the glorious end.

But – with luck – it will be another move towards what Leo Varadkar pointed to yesterday: an Ireland of the welcomes, where everybody belongs, irrespective of sexual orientation, and where a Minister ‘coming out’ is a two-day wonder.


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