DUBLIN – Ireland’s health minister, tipped as a future prime minister, came out as the first openly gay Cabinet member in a Catholic country that until the 1990s banned homosexuality.
Leo Varadkar, 36, discussed his sexuality in an interview Sunday on state broadcaster RTE Radio. The son of an Indian immigrant and a doctor before entering national politics, Varadkar has odds of 2 to 1 to replace Enda Kenny as the next leader of the Fine Gael party, according to bookmaker Paddy Power PLC.
“It’s not something that defines me,” Varadkar said in the interview. “I’m not a half-Indian politician or a doctor politician or a gay politician. It’s just part of who I am.”
For Ireland, Varadkar coming out is a watershed moment akin to Apple Inc. Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook declaration in the U.S. last year that he was “proud to be gay.” The country, which votes this year on whether to recognize same-sex marriage, was among the last of current European Union members to decriminalize homosexual activity and lawmakers are still grappling with how to legislate for abortion.
“He has stuck a blow for equality,” Jerry Buttimer, a Fine Gael member of parliament who came out in 2012, said Monday morning in an interview on RTE Radio. “The vast majority of people will embrace him.”
Varadkar made the front pages of the Irish Independent and the Irish Times, the country’s two top-selling broadsheet newspapers.
The Independent led with the headline “Varadkar on track to be first gay Taoiseach,” referring to the Irish word for prime minister. “Varadkar coming out makes us all stand tall,” Irish Times columnist Una Mullally wrote.
Deputy Prime Minister Joan Burton congratulated Varadkar on his announcement, saying it required “a lot of courage,” Newstalk reported today.
Varadkar decided to come out in advance of the same-sex referendum along with a review of whether to lift a ban on gay men donating blood, he told RTE.
“I want to be honest with people, I don’t want anyone to think I’ve a hidden agenda,” Varadkar said in the interview. “Whatever decisions are made on any issue, I’ll make them according to what I believe is in the public interest.”
Varadkar, based in Dublin, was first elected to parliament in 2007. When Fine Gael formed a ruling coalition with the Labour Party in 2011, Prime Minister Kenny appointed him transport minister. He took over the health portfolio last year.
The minister told Kenny by phone over the weekend that he’d be making the announcement. The prime minister said it was none of his business before inquiring if Varadkar had ever been to the Pantibar, one of Dublin’s best-known gay bars, where Kenny attended a function before Christmas.
“I said no I haven’t,” Varadkar said. “He said there you go Varadkar, I’m ahead of you already.”