When Ireland’s Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar came out as gay, it made world headlines. He’s a little bit puzzled by the global reaction, he tells Brian Finnegan, but he’s glad his worries about telling the world were unfounded.
“I’m really grateful for the positive words of support from constituents, party members and the public,” Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar tells me. He came out on Miriam O’Callaghan’s RTÉ radio show on Sunday, January 18, becoming the first openly gay cabinet member in the history of the Irish State.
“So far any anxieties that I had have proved to be unfounded,” he adds. “In some ways I regret I didn’t do it sooner.”
With the Marriage Referendum in the offing, there was a sense of now or never about Leo’s disclosure. Fine Gael will be campaigning hard for a Yes vote in the lead up to May, so having a non-disclosing gay cabinet member might have proven thorny, should the media have gotten hold of it. In his Miriam Meets interview, Varadkar said he’d been trying to find the right moment to come out. “It’s hard to find the right time in politics because people always ascribe motivations to anything you do,” he said.
“I didn’t want to do it at such a time where, for example, in the run up to the reshuffle, people might have thought it was something to do with that, that I was manoeuvering or pitching, or something like that. And then in the last couple of months I was trying to find a time when there wasn’t anything major going on in health. I was afraid that people would say I was just trying to take attention away from that.”
He didn’t mention the timing of his coming out in relation to the Marriage Referendum, which surely was a major consideration. If he came out too near, he might have been accused of trying to influence a Yes vote. He did say, however, that part of his decision to come out was that he didn’t want anyone to think he had a hidden agenda in terms of the referendum.
“All the arguments I was going to make were kind of detached,” he said. “I was going to say that LGBT couples should have their relationships recognised equally, but that wasn’t entirely honest because what I really want to say is that I’d like the referendum to pass because I’d like to be an equal citizen in my own country, the country in which I happen to be a member of government, and at the moment I’m not.”
He also mentioned the ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood, saying there was a folder on his desk about it. “I just want people to know that whatever decisions are made on any issue,” he added. “I’ll make them according to what I believe is in the public interest and my own conscience. I won’t be allowing my own background or my own sexual orientation to dictate the decisions that I make.”
When he phoned Enda Kenny to tell him he’d be doing the interview, the Taoiseach asked him if he’d ever been in Pantibar. When Varadkar replied in the negative, the Taoiseach replied: “There you go Varadkar, I’m ahead of you already.”
It’s indicative of the journey both Kenny and the conservative Fine Gael party have been on, which has led to their heavy endorsement of equality for lesbian and gay people under the Irish constitution. Indeed, the Taoiseach was fully aware of Varadkar’s sexual orientation when he gave him a place at the top table in government. About Varadkar’s coming out, the country’s leader said it was “none of his concern” and that he “wouldn’t be commenting on it”. He added that “nothing would be different; nothing would change.”
Varadkar said in his radio interview, that he hoped his coming out didn’t make a difference to the way people saw him or his work, but the fact that it made world news the next day, shows that a government minister coming out does make a difference, not least to LGBT people. He’s “a little puzzled as to why it went global”.
“It was on the radio in New Zealand and picked up by Time magazine online. I still don’t think it’s a big deal. But maybe the world doesn’t quite realise how much Ireland has changed and become more inclusive in the last few decades.”
He tells me he’s not sure how he feels about becoming a role model for younger LGBTs. “I have plenty of human frailties and flaws, and don’t deserve to be a role model. But I do know that there are plenty of LGBT people who have come out to their friends, family and colleagues in the Oireachtas, the civil service, the media, the law, medicine and so on. They might not talk about it publicly because sexual orientation can be a private matter if you want it to be, but they are there. I don’t think it’s a big barrier to success any more.”
Minister Varadkar’s journey towards being out as gay in every part of his life has been a longer one than is usual nowadays. I ask him if he has any advice for younger LGBTs who may be struggling with the decision to come out to their families.
“I’m not sure if I am the right person to give advice,” he says. “It took me until the age of 36 to get to where I am now. And everyone’s experience is difficult. I think the hardest thing is coming out to yourself, accepting who you are, that it’s not going to go away, and learning to like yourself. Once you’ve done that it’s pretty easy. If people don’t accept you, that’s their problem.”
The unanimous and vociferous support in the wake of his radio interview has obviously been an eye-opener for Varadkar, but on the other hand he’s not wholly surprised.
“I know a lot of LGBT people,” he says. “I have yet to meet one who regretted coming out, even if their experience was not as positive as mine has been so far.”
This interview appears in the current issue of GCN.
© 2015 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.
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