There are probably five or six gay people working as TDs in the Dail, but maybe as many as 15 or 16 – given that it’s hard to estimate and define ‘gayness’ as opposed to bisexuality or once-off encounters. An ERSI survey in Ireland reported that 7.1% of men and 4.7% of women reported having a homosexual experience in their lives, but only 2.7% of men and 1.2% of women self-identified as being gay. Which proves that some people have a problem with that definition.
This is one of the difficulties of defining people by their sexuality. Sexuality is a spectrum for many people and an evolving identity. That is why it is so important that Health Minister Leo Varadker has chosen to ‘come out’ as a gay man.
Many people who struggle with their sexuality find it difficult to reconcile their homosexual activity with their heterosexual self-image. Indeed, for many, the dichotomy between who they are sexually, and the public image the portray, is part of the thrill of the experience of living a double life.
The late (and great) Christopher Hitchens pointed this out in his essay “So Many Men’s Rooms, So Little Time” that 38% of men who frequent public toilets for sex do not consider themselves to be homosexual, while 54% were married and living with their wives.
Hitchens was making the point that for many non self-identifying gay or bisexual men, part of the ‘thrill’ of taking part in such risky sexual behavior was the chance of getting caught. And, in those days of homosexual prohibition, a lot of homosexual activity was taking place in toilets. On Clapham Common, for example, Hitchens noted that the men’s toilet had such a lurid reputation that it was said: “If someone comes in there for a good honest shit, it’s like a breath of fresh air”.
He was commenting on the story of US Senator Larry Craig whose political career ended when he was arrested for lewd behavior in a men’s room at Minneapolis airport. Craig subsequently apologised for his actions and later got the charge lowered to ‘disorderly conduct’ but the damage was done politically. His wife stood by him as he claimed not to be homosexual, but he wasn’t fooling anyone – least of all the Republican conservative voters who had elected him in the first place. Unlike being pregnant, though, you can’t be a ‘little’ gay. In American politics, especially on the right, that can be enough to end your career. It’s called hypocrisy.
The story of Larry Craig, and others like him, (we had a similar incident in Ireland years ago – I won’t refer or link to it because that TD hasn’t outed himself) is important in the context of what Leo Varadker has done in publicly identifying himself as gay. Perhaps it’s none of our business, but at the same time, like Charlie Haughey’s millions, it’s useful to know.
Let’s think about that comparison between Charlie and Leo. Charlie had a Mistress for years – ‘the best-paid whore in Dublin’ according to the recent TV series, and cheated on his wife and family with her for decades. It was ignored as nobody’s business for all of Haughey’s political life. But that long-term betrayal, and the hurt and misery caused to Maureen Haughey (nee Lemass – he married the Taoiseach’s daughter) was allowed and tolerated for years by everyone associated with Haughey. It was his dirty little secret. And the pain it caused to the Haughey family was not relevant to political discussion, such was the low level of personal morality among the political elite. Hurting someone repeatedly, over many years, is not something of which you should be politically ashamed, was the message.
Leo Varadker, on the other hand, has openly admitted that he is gay. He won’t be getting married, or cheating on any spouse for a while, because we don’t allow ‘his kind’ to have a marriage in this country, or be legally faithful to one person. Neither can he donate blood. And we have to wait and see if his bedroom activity precludes him from being Taoiseach.
Either way, we have to thank him for being, ahem, straight. He is unlike Haughey in that his quest is not to seek power at all costs, but to have the truth about all issues openly discussed and examined. That, in turn, allows us to discuss the whole spectrum of sexuality, as well as giving a huge fillip to every gay and bi-sexual person out there struggling for self-acceptance and struggling for society’s acceptance.
We still get the issue wrong.
I recently read a Twitter post from someone who said: “My friend’s nose was broken tonight. The price for being gay in Ireland in 2014.” When I read that I thought to myself that yes, while there are people out there who will react violently towards gay people, I would bet heavily that every time they do, alcohol is involved. Perhaps we should talk about our alcohol addiction and related violence as much as we should about gay prejudice?
The announcement by Minister Varadker is important in that regard. We can now talk about violence against gays purely from its disgusting ‘violent’ angle and not have to discuss the rights or perceived wrongs of homosexuality itself. By coming out, he has moved the debate on from what you do in the bedroom and who you do it with, to how to treat your lover and how honest you are as a person.
It’s a huge step. It’s as much of a blow to sexual hypocrisy as it is a boon to people who don’t wish to have their private lives caught up in the public realm.
It’s always a valid question to ask a politician – how are you in private? Are you an alcoholic? (True in many cases in Irish politics). Are you non-tax compliant? (Also true in some cases). Are you a loving and kind person to your lover and family? (It might be supposedly none of our business, but it will tell us a lot about you.)
There are a few qualifications needed to be a Health Minister, and being heterosexual is not one of them. You need to believe in science and logic. You need to be hard-working and solution-driven. And you need to be honest and straightforward about what can and what cannot be achieved. Leo Varadker is all these things.
On the other hand, just a few miles away we have in Northern Ireland a Health Minister, Edwin Poots, that doesn’t believe in the theory of evolution. Minister Poots believes in ‘intelligent design‘ and other theories about the creation of the Universe. Those beliefs can and will lead him to support ideas that are not logic-based or evidenced by science. It would even cause him to believe that ‘Jesus’, or the ‘Bible’, or ‘God’ has Leo dammed to Hell for eternity for his sexuality, which comes naturally by creation, not choice.
These ideas should bar him from holding a post as Minister for Health, as they indicate he is not capable of thinking outside the DUP‘s framework of the world. It also indicates that he could make decisions that affect some of the citizens of Northern Ireland in a negative way because of his adherence to the rules of an ancient and rambling text for a Jewish religious sect, rather than the proven scientific principles most people would apply to life in the 21st century.
We should be proud that we have a Minister like Leo Varadker – not because he is gay, but because he brings a truth and morality to his life which is likely to reflect into his political life, thereby bringing us all to a greater truth and knowledge of ourselves and our society. Whether we like it or not.
For many years in Ireland we closed down any space that was mired in sexuality. One of Leo Varadker’s predecessors claimed there had been no sex in Ireland before television. But there always was sex – messy, awful, destroying, violent and clandestine sex, and it was rarely free or empowering. It’s just that now, and especially post-Leo, we’re not quite as afraid as we used to be to talk about it. As Billy Bragg used to sing:
It’s a little early, but I’d be prepared to wager that quite a few lives will be saved, redeemed and enhanced by a politician telling us a real truth. Leo has done us all a service. Enough, no more of that. We know it.
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