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Ireland’s first openly gay half-Indian PM and the politics of being out

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News of Leo Varadkar being elected to the Prime-Ministership in Ireland has dominated headlines this week. Born to an Indian migrant father and an Irish mother he is set to be the first openly gay PM of Ireland. Varadkar who belongs to Ireland’s Fine Gael Party, is also the country’s youngest PM and was the first minister ever to come out as gay in 2015.

Varadkar’s election in spite of the global resurgence in populist politics and Ireland’s deep Catholicism, suggest progress in race relations and the acceptance of openly LGBT individuals. Generally, politicians get elected as president or prime minister on the basis of their policy decisions, ideological agenda and economic promise. There is, however a normative expectation that they embody social values pertaining to marriage, family, religion, nationhood and hard work. Any open non-conformity to these ideals would generally reduce the chances of success. By those standards, Varadkar’s election as PM is certainly an affirmation of the place of LGBT subjects in Irish society and around the world.

In addition to celebrating Varadkar’s openly gay and mixed-ethnic identity, we must also ask what his election really means, and not just for the Irish people. We must consider western contexts where despite the momentum of liberal progress (e.g. the repeal of Don’t-ask-don’t-tell and legalization of same-sex marriage in the US), the top office generally eludes and excludes an openly gay person from a presidential nomination.

In a recent Guardian story, Emer O’Toole observed that Varadkar’s election is important for its representational value. Given the barriers faced by minority groups to participate in public life as well as the bullying of gay teens in schools, the leader’s success is certainly a promising sign of change. However, O’Toole warns readers of Varadkar’s neoliberal orientation – his ‘pro-life’ stance would undermine reproductive rights and his campaign against people on welfare is patently anti-poor.

Varadkar’s rise to Irish PM has also made news in India. While his family in Mumbai has celebrated his success with pride, Sushma Swaraj, the Indian Minister of External Affairs and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government have chosen to not celebrate his victory as an example of Indian accomplishment. Usually proactive in claiming pride of Indian successes abroad, the NDA government’s silence on Varadkar’s success is symptomatic of a deep-rooted denial of homosexuality in Indian culture by the Hindu Right Wing. In light of the ongoing criminalization of homosexual behaviour in India, such silence is clearly ideological, and is in line with the government’s cultural agenda that is being militantly pursued through cow vigilantism and recent policies on cattle trade.

The decriminalization of homosexuality is no doubt an important legal goal that can slowly lead to broader social change towards LGBT people in India. At the same time, being open and out about one’s sexual orientation in India continues to be a risky proposition given the moral policing of sexuality in everyday life contexts.

Of course, there are Indian individuals who speak openly about their sexuality as lawyers, activists and public figures. But they are also afforded a certain safety and protection from harm because of their class privilege and social stature. This is also perhaps true of Leo Varadkar whose choice to be out in a Catholic Irish society is made easier by his class status.

HuffPost story pointed out that Indians might be proud of the Irish PM but his conduct would still be criminal in India. Further, the story goes on to say that Varadkar would not be a big leader as an openly gay person in India. There is only partial truth to this claim since it is homosexual conduct, which is criminalized and not necessarily the gay identity.

Despite wealth and power, a gay politician would not want to come out given the nature of scrutiny his or her coming out would invite. Being out as gay can perhaps help the cause of LGBT rights but it can also take the focus off other kinds of important work the politician may be engaged in. While India should accept homosexuality legally and socially, it must be kept in mind that there is a social price to pay for anyone being out about their sexual orientation.