There is still a long way to go when it comes to the march for LGBT equality. There are a number of battles that need to be fought around the world from the embryonic struggle to end the criminalisation of homosexual activity to more complex areas like systemic homophobia in public institutions. In the case of the latter the ultimate symbol of progress is the choice of an LGBT person to become the leader of a country. However it is important to stress that this symbolism has a different significance in different political cultures.
In Western media outlets there has been much attention paid to the recent election of Leo Varadkar as the Taoiseach for being the first gay holder of that office. The narrative shows Varadkar as a symbol of a new, more socially progressive Ireland that represents the country’s distinctive shift away from the hegemony of the Catholic Church. But just because the new Taoiseach is a homosexual doesn’t give him carte blanche to continue the same policies of Enda Kenny’s government.
Oppression against any ethnic or sexual minority takes many different forms. Attitudes towards social norms is, of course, the most visible display of oppression because it often culminates in fiery rhetoric and/or bigoted views towards that group. However it is also important to recognise the inter-sectional concerns of different groups within the LGBT community. For example the economic plight caused by systemic racism facing a black gay man will not be addressed by only changing social attitudes. There has to be an assault made on the roots of racism so as to fully emancipate the individual and achieve true equality.
This comes back to Leo Varadkar’s appointment as Taoiseach. If Varadkar is going to do nothing to address the other forms of oppression that face LGBT people in the Republic of Ireland then his appointment will be purely symbolic. If asked to choose who should lead their country between an establishment figure who happens to be gay and a straight individual who will bring about true LGBT equality, many LGBT people would chose the latter. Of course the symbolism of having a gay leader is important on a superficial level, but if nothing materially changes as a result what is the point to having a gay Taoiseach.
However Varadkar is not the only LGBT person who has recently become a national leader. Ana Brnabic was recently nominated by Serbian President Aleksander Vucic to be his new Prime Minister. I would argue that Brnabic’s appointment will be more significant for the global LGBT rights movement than Varadkar’s new position of authority, and this is because of the different political context that she finds herself in. Although Ireland has a history and reputation of being incredibly socially conservative, the recent strides forward in LGBT rights, namely the overwhelming result in the 2016 same-sex marriage referendum, show that mainstream Irish opinion has significantly moved on this issue. As a result, as I have said, Varadkar’s will, in and of itself, change very little.
On the other hand, Brnabic takes office in a country that remains highly conservative when it comes to social issues. In 2010 far-right protesters attacked Belgrade’s Pride parade and this resulted in the festival being banned for three years. It was reinstated in 2014 with a massively increased security presence. Those familiar with Balkan politics may argue that the influence of Brnabic will be somewhat modest as the position of Prime Minister is largely a ceremonial, administrative role and most political power in the Serbian government is in the hands of the President. Whilst the latter part of this is true I reject that her impact will be small.
In order to be appointed she had to be appointed by President Vucic and, although he didn’t explicitly point out Brnabic’s sexuality in the announcement, it is not a secret. This will mean that people who hold very conservative positions on LGBT rights will be exposed to someone of a sexual minority, possibly for the first time. The process of humanisation must not be underestimated in a society where homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are still commonplace. The structural problems of discrimination are important to tackle, but these can only be done if there is an appetite to rectify these other injustices. As such, I believe that the lasting impact of Brnabic’s appointment will be more significant than Varadkar’s despite the former lacking the political clout of the latter.
To conclude, it is positive that Ireland have a Taoiseach that will be a gay man because I do believe that there is something to be said about having oppressed groups in positions of power in order to provide inspiration for the next generation. However Varadkar’s political positions on economic matters do not, in my view, deal with the material struggles facing LGBT people in the Republic of Ireland and as such his time in office will be largely disappointing.
Brnabic, on the other hand, will already have influenced the national discourse of Serbia in a more significant way that Varadkar will ever do. This is not the fault of Varadkar personally but because Ireland has already become a more tolerant country whereas Serbia is further behind on this journey. Brnabic will be in the centre of public life in Serbia that will challenge people with bigoted opinions to think about the reactionary nature of their views. Furthermore, due to the recent history of the region, it is highly likely that Brnabic’s appointment will raise the issue of LGBT rights in other parts of the Balkans and bring about change in neighbouring states.