by Shawn Pogatchnik
DUBLIN — A senior Cabinet minister in Ireland says he’s gay, becoming the first openly gay government figure in the history of the traditionally conservative Catholic country.
Sunday’s announcement on state radio by Health Minister Leo Varadkar received widespread praise for its straightforward honesty. Analysts said his decision was likely to be viewed with hindsight as a landmark of social change in a country that, until 1993, outlawed homosexual acts.
Varadkar said he decided to declare his sexuality in advance of government moves this year to advance gay rights. These include plans to legalize gay marriage, permit homosexual men to donate blood, and create greater parenthood rights for gays in surrogate-pregnancy cases. He said May’s constitutional referendum on gay marriage, in particular, got him thinking about going public.
“I was thinking about the arguments that I might make. That’s what politicians do. You rehearse your arguments, you write them down, you run them by a few people. All the arguments that I was going to make were kind of detached … and that wouldn’t have been entirely honest,” he told RTE.
“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 said.
Varadkar, who made his announcement on his 36th birthday, is highly regarded in Irish political circles as one of the government’s hardest working members and a potential future prime minister. Speculation about his sexuality had grown in recent months, reflecting Varadkar’s decision to tell an increasing circle of his family, friends and political colleagues in private.
Varadkar said he told his parents in advance of his plans to come out publicly, in part because he didn’t want them to get the news from fellow parishioners at Catholic Mass.
He said he also telephoned Prime Minister Enda Kenny on Saturday to tell him he was gay and planned to tell the nation the following day. He said his own initial feeling of awkwardness was quickly alleviated by Kenny, who reassured him that nothing in their working relationship would change — and then asked his minister whether he’d ever been to Dublin’s most prominent drag venue, Pantibar. Kenny paid a surprise visit to the venue last month.
Varadkar said he’d never been there, to which Kenny replied: “There you go Varadkar, I’m ahead of you already.”
Two other lawmakers in Ireland’s 166-seat legislature are openly gay. Ireland legalized civil partnerships in 2011.