Is having a gay taoiseach a big deal for Ireland?

On February 1st, 2009, at the height of her country’s financial crisis, Jóhanna Sigurdardottir was elected Iceland’s first female prime minister and the world’s first openly gay head of government.

Two years later, Elio Di Rupo, who had publicly come out under media pressure in 1996, became prime minister of Belgium.

And in December 2013, Xavier Bettel succeeded Jean-Claude Juncker to become the 24th prime minister of Luxembourg. In 2015 he married his partner of five years.

So when, barring parliamentary mishaps, the new Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar is elected taoiseach some time in the next few weeks, he will become the fourth openly gay head of government in modern European history.

Not an earth-shattering landmark, but far from inconsequential either. The movement towards equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation, has been the most rapid social change of recent times. The fact that many prominent roles in society are filled by openly gay and lesbian people is now considered so unremarkable that many forget such a situation would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

Liberal modernity

Varadkar’s sexual orientation, along with his part-Indian parentage, has already been seized upon by international media as a signifier of Ireland’s supposed transition from conservative traditionalism to liberal modernity.

Ireland, a devoutly Catholic country that decriminalised homosexuality only 24 years ago, is poised to elect its first openly gay prime minister next month,” wrote the New York Post.

“It would be a monumental piece of history for the once-staunchly Catholic country,” wrote Gay News in the UK.