The Irish have elected a new Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, whose name is Leo Varadkar and whose father was an Indian immigrant. A parliamentary vote on June 14 confirmed the 38-year-old, Ireland’s youngest PM and first openly gay leader. In his first address to the Irish Parliament, or Dail, after his election, Varadkar said, “I’ve been elected to lead, but I promise to serve.”
The Indian media has been quick to celebrate another Indian immigrant’s ascension to the world stage. His homosexuality did not dampen the enthusiasm to claim him as one of our own. This is why it should.
We are a nation of hypocritical homophobes. Leo Varadkar could not have been an openly gay politician in India, leave alone prime minister. In fact, he couldn’t have been openly gay. Remember Article 377, which even in 2017 continues to criminalise homosexuality?
If we, as a nation, slap ourselves on our backs on the achievements of our gay immigrants, while criminalizing those back home, that hypocrisy needs to be talked about. And the ease with which the Indian media uses the phrase, “openly gay,” needs to be talked about as well.
What is it you’re mumbling under your breath? Khajuraho? Kamasutra? That veil is too thin to cover your queerphobia. We don’t feel proud about our openly gay people. We have criminalized them. We have forced them to commit suicides because they cannot live with the dishonour and stigma their families and loved ones face from society.
But of course, the Leo Varadkars and the Vikram Seths are different. They seem safe to be celebrated from a distance. How many of us will be comfortable with our sons and daughters being openly gay? There is your answer.
The social ostracizing, vilification and discrimination that our queer citizens face has negated their fundamental rights on a daily basis. Truth is, we cannot celebrate Varadkar’s political success without also noting, in the inevitable same breath, that he is Ireland’s first gay minister. Perhaps, we are revelling in our self-destructive voyeurism.
The symbolic importance of this cannot be over-emphasised in a country where homosexuals and lesbians have been ridiculed, bullied and killed for their sexual preferences. We would much rather elect political leaders who exude a hypermasculinity, a “lauh purush” kind of guy.
Certainly, there’s no place for this kind of heteronormativity in the Indian context. In fact, the irony is delicious. A search for “openly gay Indian politicians’ leads to – yes, you guessed it, to Leo Varadkar.
For India’s gay community, this isn’t merely about symbolism. Priyam, a 28 year old gay person I spoke to, pointed out that “majoritarianism is increasingly defining standards for morality in India. But if we can look up to Ireland, it would mean we are becoming much more accommodating about queer people.”
Varadkar, himself, had this to say about his sexual orientation, when he first came out as gay in 2015: “It’s not something that defines me. 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’s not a big deal for me anymore. I hope it’s not a big deal for anyone else.”
In Ireland, reaction has been mixed about Varadkar’s appointment among feminist and LGBTQ circles. Robbie Lawlor, a Dublin based activist and former Mr Gay Ireland, working on HIV awareness, put his finger on the button when he said, “All that symbolism is great, but it comes with great shame as his political views are very conservative.”
Those parameters of the debate are definitely far more relevant. Varadkar’s status as the son of an Indian immigrant should be far less important – to India and the world – than the fact that he is against women’s reproductive rights, has demonstrated a track record of being anti-working class and even has reservations against gay people adopting children.
Laura Fitzgerald, spokesperson of a feminist organisation, ROSA, put it succinctly. “He has been Minister in a government that has presided over a homelessness crisis, a two-tier health service, a continued archaic abortion ban and a massive piling up of wealth at the very top of society. His coronation as prime minister will not be welcomed either by LGBTQ youth or women or workers who have been struggling against his right-wing Government.”
Still, Varadkar’s ascension to the top job in politics is as much a vote in favour of Ireland’s liberal credentials, which decriminalized homosexuality in 1993 and legalised same sex marriage in 2015. In the same year Varadkar became Ireland’s first openly gay Minister. He may be severely critiqued for his politics, but not for what he does between his sheets.
Back home, the picture remains too bleak. Even if all hell finally breaks loose and Kaliyug shows its true colours, the possibility of an openly gay or lesbian politician in India is remote. Misogynist comments by former Samajwadi Party chief minister and face-of-the-future Akhilesh Yadav about BSP leader Mayawati, or those by Janata Dal (United) leader Sharad Yadav, among the rest, are too depressing.
Across the political spectrum, allegations about sexism and homophobia remain unaddressed. To claim Leo Varadkar as one of “our own,” while pushing his entire context under the carpet, can only be a particular kind of Indian hypocrisy.