Trends: In the corridors of pink power

Big into Wagner. On left, Germany's FDP leader Guido Westerwelle with his companion Michael Mronz, at the Bayreuth festival 25 July 2009 (AFP)
Big into Wagner. On left, Germany's FDP leader Guido Westerwelle with his companion Michael Mronz, at the Bayreuth festival 25 July 2009 (AFP)
Il Foglio (Milan)

After women and ethnic minority leaders, a third group of political outsiders is now making inroads into the European political arena: politicians who no longer hide – and some even flaunt – their homosexuality.

After the long (and as yet uncertain) ascent of women to power in Western democracies, after the success of ethnic and regional minorities in gaining a hearing for their identity-based claims, now we are seeing the rise of a third and ever-glorious group of outsiders who have managed to establish themselves as political players on a par with (or even a couple rungs above) their straight fellow party members. So brace yourselves for the new season of Pink Power, of openly gay statesmen whose sexuality is no longer shut up in the closet or the “dark room”, but an open secret in the corridors of power with a capital “P”.

This is no longer the strident “gay power” of clamouring “single-issue” militants, whose political activism was defined by their sexuality and whose platform was confined to “aiding the cause” – like Peter Tatchell, the only Westerner who had the courage to attack Robert Mugabe by attempting a “citizen’s arrest” of the most homophobic African dictator of them all. These are top-ranking politicians whose sexual preferences are, to varying degrees, only one element of their political statement. In the past few days here in Europe we have witnessed the triumph of two men at the top of the “gay list” (which rhymes with “A list”), who have reached the “number two” positions in their respective governments.

Guido Westerwelle, nicknamed "Gay-Do"

There is the icy Peter Mandelson, who has always been very discreet about his sexuality (“my sex life is private, but no secret,” he told the BBC in 1999, after being “outed” in a live TV interview by Matthew Parris, journalist and one-time correspondence secretary to Margaret Thatcher). But Mandelson has loosened up in recent years and has finally gained love and recognition as a true hero of the Labour party. At the recent Labour conference in Brighton he gave a rousing speech – replete with allusions to his gayness.

Then there’s Guido Westerwelle, leader of the German free-market liberals, who, after years of top billing in the gossip columns on account of his silence on the subject (“We don’t talk openly about stuff like that in Germany”), finally confirmed the rumours in July 2004. For the 50th birthday of his friend and now partner-in-government Angela Merkel, he showed up at the party with his companion, businessman Michael Mronz, as is quite customary in the more serenely liberal societies like The Netherlands or Scandinavia, where gay MPs and town councillors have been out of the closet for 20 years now. Even more than Mandelson, Guido (whom some call “Gaydo”) really let himself go during the election campaign, even making jokes about his “schwer” tastes. Number two in Merkel’s future government, in which he will serve not only as vice-chancellor, but in all likelihood as foreign minister as well, Westerwelle will be making the rounds of the world, enchanting some and mortifying others.

Left comes out more often than right

The Gay List also features some important mayors, including Berlin’s Klaus Wowereit, who has now taken the pole position in the (long-distance hurdle) race for the leadership of the Social Democratic Party in the aftermath of their resounding defeat last Sunday. The imperturbable Bertrand Delanoë still reigns supreme in Paris city hall, and although he hasn’t got Wowereit’s prepossessing looks, he is an ace in the hole for the Socialist Party –founded, incidentally, by a (straight) libertine, viz. François Mitterrand – in case enthusiasm should flag for the frontrunning ladies, Martine Aubry and Ségolène Royal. If Delanoë were to take a stab at it, Westerwelle and Mandelson’s success would augur very well. And perhaps he would be encouraged by old François’ nephew, ex-TV show host Frédéric Mitterrand, now culture minister in Nicolas Sarkozy’s cabinet, in a gesture of bi-partisanship and, above all, homo-solidarity.

After Labour’s victory in 1997, in keeping with the agenda of Blair’s various cabinets, which removed all social bars to same-sex enthusiasts, the United Kingdom witnessed the rise of a whole host of gay government ministers and PMs, beginning with ex-minister of culture Chris Smith, the first queer to bring his partner to dinner at Buckingham Palace, where he was greeted with big smiles all round (and sneers from Prince Philip). His office is currently held by one-time BBC reporter Ben Bradshaw, the first prominent European minister to marry his partner. And Tory leader David Cameron, moving from strength to strength towards Downing Street as he follows in the footsteps of his idol Tony Blair, bids fair to leave plenty of room in his next cabinet for his many gay friends (Nick Herbert, Nick Boles, and Ivan Massow are among his closest advisers).

But one thing hasn’t changed much: being openly gay generally means allegiance to a left-wing – or at least free-market liberal – party. Those on the right wing (or Roman Catholics of any political persuasion) tend to stay in the closet. That isn’t always the case though: in a country where gay Lib-Labs have been represented in local government or parliament for ages already, we find a young minister of the economy in Balkenende’s third cabinet, Joop Wijn (b. 1969), who had an out-and-out Catholic upbringing. The Dutch precedent, brief but sensational, was set by Pim Fortuyn, the anti-immigrant right-wing leader who was assassinated in 2002. But what shall we say of the Austrian Jörg Haider, who died in a car crash in 2008, after having appointed his 26-year-old lover, Stefan Petzner, leader of the party?

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