Leo Varadkar on his feminist journey: ‘I realised life is not black and white’

The Taoiseach tells the Women’s Podcast about feminism, coming out and ‘manels’

"I'm always a bit uncomfortable listening to male politicians talking about their journey," says Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, of his path to feminist enlightenment.

"Because, of course, the journey that nearly 200,000 women took to end their pregnancies was a much more difficult and much more traumatic than any journey that any male politician ever went on," he tells Kathy Sheridan on the latest episode of the Women's Podcast, recorded live at the Body & Soul festival in Co Westmeath.

Nevertheless, the Taoiseach did go on “a journey” to understand why Ireland’s abortion laws needed to change, he says, and on that road he opened his ears to women and their stories.

He spoke to his sisters, to his mother – "a big repealer" – to friends and to political colleagues, in particular Frances Fitzgerald who, he said, was a "very big influence" on him over the years and has been known to hand him feminist literature by the likes of Mary Beard to aid his education.

“I think it’s just a case of changing views over time, and lots of people in the country have too,” he says, addressing the crowd at the festival’s Woodlands Stage last Saturday.

But it was not just other people’s personal stories that helped to change his position on abortion. It was also his own coming out as a gay man that led him to realise that life is “not so black and white, not so moralistic”.

“When you are a closeted gay man and you feel people are being judgmental, it’s easier for you to be judgmental of others. My liberation was coming out as a gay man, being accepted by all my friends and family, by the public, by my party, which is a broadly conservative party, and when that happens, you see things differently,” he says.

The Taoiseach also speaks about how he has been influenced by the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who refuses point-blank to partake in all-male panels.

Varadkar admits that he did not really understand what Trudeau was so concerned about, until he found himself on another “manel” a few months later and was introduced to the women providing refreshments at the back of the room afterwards.

“I was thinking, what image does that send to young women today? Ten-year-olds, 15-year-olds, looking up at the men on the stage while the women are preparing the refreshments, and this is 21st-century Ireland. We really have a long way to go,” he says.

Also on stage for the "Women's Podcast: The People Have Spoken" episode, were Ailbhe Smyth, co-director of the Together for Yes campaign; founder of the Repeal Project Anna Cosgrave; and Claudia Horeau from Migrants and Ethnicities for Reproductive Justice. Up-and-coming alt-rock Limerick band Pow Pig performed live at the event.

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