Varadkar coming out as gay is a gust of fresh air in Irish life

Role models such as the Minister for Health show being gay is not a hindrance in Irish society

Una Mullally on why Leo Varadkar's coming out matters.


Leo Varadkar is nothing if not frank. “I am a gay man, it’s not a secret, but not something that everyone would necessarily know, but isn’t something I’ve spoken publicly about before,” the Minister for Health said on Miriam O’Callaghan’s Sunday morning programme on RTÉ Radio 1.

Radio volume dials were turned up, journalists’ necks got whiplash, Twitter was flooded. So, why does it matter? This is a question many (mostly straight) people ask about gay people coming out, with a sort of misdirected liberalism. Well, it matters hugely. You cannot underestimate the power of someone as high profile as Varadkar coming out, especially considering the insidious pressure many people feel not to.

Why does it matter? I’m sure there were mothers and fathers listening to RTE Radio 1 yesterday morning who worry about their gay children. They worry about them because we live in a society that still discriminates against gay people. They worry about them because gay people still have to deal with homophobic slurs.

Gay people demonised

They worry about them because our society has demonised gay people in the past and there has been a historical insinuation that a gay life is a lonely life, that it is a difficult one. They worry about what their wider family will think, and what the neighbours will think. Yet those same parents will have listened to the Minister, and perhaps thought, well, if he’s gay maybe things won’t be that bad, maybe there is nothing to worry about.

Why does it matter? Regardless of how people view Varadkar’s politics, he is seen as a “sound” politician who pulls no punches and tells it like it is. He is seen as solid, the man for the job – any job. So powerful is his aura of honesty, professionalism and capability that his public support transcends party politics.

Listen: Leo Varadkar on Sunday with Miriam on RTÉ Radio 1

The most frequent tone of the texts O’Callaghan was receiving yesterday was of those who disagree with his politics, yet were commending him for coming out. “I’m a Communist,” one texter wrote, saying that while he disagreed with every ounce of the Minister’s politics, his coming out was a breath of fresh air.

It is not a breath, but a gust. Varadkar’s bravery follows the bravery of David Norris, of Katherine Zappone, of John Lyons and of Jerry Buttimer. Their own campaigning on LGBT rights issues matched with personal stories of discrimination and resilience have burst open the closet doors in Leinster House and brought a level of humanity to politics. Everyone knows someone who is gay, and politicians are no different.

Why does it matter? It is hugely important for gay people to have role models. From Roses of Tralee to Ministers for Health, these role models show that being gay is not a hindrance in Irish society, nor is it a state of being alone or alienated or weird. One day, a government minister being gay will not be so remarkable. One day we will wonder what the big deal was. One day, we will be embarrassed that we lived in a society where gay people were not afforded the same rights as their straight brothers and sisters. That day will draw ever closer as the actions and honesty of people such as Varadkar become more commonplace.

Harvey Milk, the gay rights activist and politician who was assassinated in San Francisco City Hall in 1978, said: “Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell you friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realise that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do it you will feel so much better.”

Standing up

Why does it matter? Coming out is a building block of wider visibility. It is the most powerful tool gay people have. The personal is political, after all. It is standing up. It is making oneself known to others truthfully. And it is hard for others to hate what they know.

When people come out it makes it easier for the rest of us. While the impetus might be personal, the impact is collective. The reason the LGBT rights movement has progressed in Ireland with such dignity, solidarity, empathy and bravery is also thanks to the support straight people have offered to their gay family members, teammates, colleagues and friends.

If we really want to live in a country that respects each other regardless of where we were born, or who we are, or the colour of our skin, or our sexuality, or our gender identity, or our religious beliefs, or the size of our paycheque, then when when we stand up as citizens of a Republic we must all stand up together.

Yesterday, the Minister for Health stood up. Nice one, Leo. Thank you.

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