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by Stephen Cox

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In December the Quaker Lesbian and Gay Fellowship asked, tongue-in-cheek, how long it would be before an openly gay head of government was elected anywhere in the world. The answer turned out to be three weeks. In the middle of an unprecedented economic collapse, the Icelandic parties turned to the longstanding social affairs minister Johanna Siguroardottir to head an interim government until there are fresh elections in May.

Johanna Siguroardottir, 66, will become the first openly gay or lesbian person to become a head of government. She has been an MP since 1978 and was recently voted the most popular politician in Iceland. Her appointment appears to have been uncontroversial in Iceland itself.

Does it matter? No one can believe that her orientation will help Iceland with its economic troubles. She will not adopt a specifically lesbian attitude to international debt, fisheries policy, or possible entry to the European Union. There are those, of course, who believe Iceland will bring down God’s wrath and the next volcanic eruption or outbreak of sheep mange will be blamed on her long-term relationship with another woman. But I am sure she will want to be judged on what she can do for the country.

I am slightly skeptical about the idea that single high-profile successes change the nature of politics.

It was an article of faith among 19th-century feminists that giving women the vote would “civilize” society. However, the first few female prime ministers — Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, and Margaret Thatcher spring to mind — were not notably less bellicose than the men. Indeed, Hillary Clinton, by a whisker the runnerup for the Democratic nomination, carefully positioned herself as one of the more hawkish Democrats. Change is more subtle.

There are two reasons why it does matter. The first is that whatever one’s system of government, one wishes to draw on all the talent available. If she is the best woman for the job, why exclude her?

The second is the inconvenient truth about role models. When I grew up, the gay role models were camp actors and entertainers, usually not openly gay, and drugtaking rock stars. There were no lesbian role models. The books in my house were “liberal” in that gay people were to be pitied for their inevitable loneliness rather than hated. One child-rearing book, having confused homosexuality, transvestitism, transgenderism, and just plain “sensitive and bookish,” cheerfully told parents not to worry because “such children often make good livings in theater, design, or fashion.” The encyclopedia tersely mentioned the gay people in the U.S. had begun to assert their civil rights. Its disapproval was obvious. But it certainly felt that being loved would be “even if” I were gay. (I must stress that there are many such stories to tell, and lesbian and gay people can’t and don’t claim that theirs are uniquely bad.)

A child who is gay today will soon learn that cabinet ministers and cabinet makers, airline chief executives as well as airline stewards, people who run operating theaters as well as theatrical ones — can be gay or lesbian or bi, just as the constant racist undercurrents about African Americans have been challenged by Barack Obama. He cannot end racism, but he can let countless struggling children all over the world know that might be possible. It’s for that reason we need to cheer Johanna Siguroardottir and her unenviable task. Yes we can.

Originally published in the April 3, 2009, edition of The Friend, the only Quaker weekly journal. Reprinted with permission from www.qlgf.org.uk.

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