Ireland is set to make history next week with the likely election of Leo Varadkar as its new premier, who would not only be the country’s first prime minister of Asian descent, but also its first openly gay leader.
The 38-year-old doctor has drummed up a lot of support over the last year and is poised to succeed Enda Kenny as leader of the governing Fine Gael. Many are comparing the young politician (born to a father from Mumbai and a mother from southern Ireland) to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and new French president Emmanuel Macron for his progressive, forward-thinking politics.
Varadkar’s election would mark a distinct shift for the traditionally conservative nation that’s historically been ruled as much by the Catholic church as it has been by its elected officials.
“I honestly don’t think in 1981 when I first got elected that I could foresee a time when an openly gay man might become [prime minister],” former Fine Gael deputy leader Nora Owen told Reuters.
“We have come a long way and the fact that someone like Leo Varadkar, who is an openly gay man, living with his partner, can actually put himself forward for [Prime Minister] and nobody is batting an eyelid is wonderful and I think it’s a great day for Ireland that we can do that.”
Varadkar first opened up about his sexuality in a January 2015 interview with RTÉ Radio. He made the decision to go public as he was set to campaign for the government’s referendum in support of same-sex marriage.
“It’s not something that defines me,” he said of his sexuality. “I’m not a half-Indian politician, or a doctor politician or a gay politician for that matter. It’s just part of who I am, it doesn’t define me, it is part of my character.”
Later that year, he delivered a stirring speech in favor of marriage equality, which would eventually become law in May 2015.
“This isn’t a bill about gay marriage, it’s a bill about equal marriage,” he said. “It’s not about weakening one of the strongest institutions in society, it’s about strengthening it and making it inclusive for everyone. It’s about removing the sense of shame, isolation and humiliation from many who feel excluded and let’s them know that Ireland is a country that believes in equality before the law.”
Voters will take to the polls on June 2 to decide between Varadkar and opponent Simon Coveney to succeed Kenny. While both are popular among Irish citizens, Varadkar’s brash, direct approach has won widespread admiration throughout the country.
“The people I have met who might be from more conservative rural backgrounds and who I thought wouldn’t really subscribe to Leo really like him,” said Brendan Griffin, a backbencher in Parliament.
“I was with a group of friends [recently] and the first comment was imagine a [Prime Minister] in his 30s. The second was ’and a son of an immigrant’ and it was only then that someone said ’and gay as well’ People are amazed at how quickly the country has moved on.”