The Rise and Rise of Gay Politicians: Ireland, Italy and Elsewhere

David Norris

In Ireland, there is a storing possibility that an openly gay senator, David Norris, could become the next Irish president, in elections due later this year.

A poll has found that openly gay Irish Senator David Norris leads the pack seeking to be the nation’s next president.

The Red C poll conducted in early January found that Norris, 66, is favored by 27 percent of voters, followed by Member of the European Parliament Mairead McGuinness at 13 percent, former Prime Minister Bertie Ahern at 12 percent, Dáil member Michael D. Higgins at 11 percent, and MEP Brian Crowley and charity executive Fergus Finlay at 10 percent.

Meanwhile, Silvio Berlusconi’s current troubles have again led to public speculation that Nichi Vendola, the openly gay president of the Apulia region could be the man most likely to unite the presently fractured left wing opposition parties and lead them to victory, and so become Italy’s first openly gay prime minister.


Nichi Vendola

Last year,  Iceland’s Johanna Sigurdardottir became the world’s first openly gay prime minister.

My immediate response was to note the possibility (no more) of the first openly gay head of state, and the first gay male head of government, to follow Ms Sigurdardottir into LGBT history, just a year later. So, I did a little bit of digging, in search of other gay or lesbian in senior government ranks. To my pleasant surprise, I found that impressive though the achievements will be, if Norris and Vendola are successful, they will not be quite as ground-breaking as I thought. Norris will not be the first head of state, and Vendola will not be the first gay Prime Minister of Italy (just the first to be open about it).

In the US, last year’s mid – terms brought the fourth openly gay member of Congress – out of a total of five hundred and thirty eight, less than 1%.  There are still no (openly)  LGBT Senators. Elsewhere, progress has gone much further. Here are just some of the openly gay men I found in just a few hours research who have reached high office in government, at cabinet level, as provincial governors, or mayors of large cities.  (I will be researching the women later).

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LGBT Politicians: Italy’s Catholic Communist, Nichi Vendola

Italian Silvio Berlusconi is clearly in trouble, and could be facing a new election early next year. This prompts Gay City News to put the intriguing headline “A Gay Prime Minister for Italy?“. I suspect that this speculation is premature: Berlusconi is a survivor, whose political death has been exaggerated before, and Vendola is only one of the candidates who could end up leading the opposition against him. Still, it is worth taking note of this man: improbable as it may seem that Catholic Italy should elect a man who is not only openly gay, but a gay activist, consider his record so far. In 2005 he was elected President of Puglia, a generally conservative region, beating the candidate of Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition. Polls show that his chances of leading the opposition slate in any election area certainly realistic – he is either leading or narrowly trailing his nearest rivals in popular support.

His political ascent is also another reminder of the remarkable rise of openly gay or lesbian politicians across Europe. Iceland has a lesbian Prime Minister, Germany has a gay Foreign Minister who is virtually Chancellor Merkel’s deputy. In the UK, Peter Mandelson was one of the most senior minister’s in the last Labour government, and even the Conservatives in their election campaign touted as a political asset the number of gay or lesbian candidates they were fielding. The US is lagging here, with only four out legislators in congress, but there are a steadily increasing number in other offices. The trend will continue as public acceptance expands. The ensuing visibility in turn will encourage further acceptance, and will also lead to greater priority for equality measures in legislative bodies at all levels, in Europe, in the US, and elsewhere.

The answer to Gay City’s question must surely be “Yes, there will be a gay PM for Italy”. It may not be Nichi Vendola, or not just yet – but it’s only a matter of time.

It is also important to note that Vendola, a communist, identifies as Catholic, and states that his most important book is the Bible, reminding us that sexual ethics is not the only element in Catholic teaching, or even the most important. Social justice, spiritual life, and creating the Kingdom of God on earth are all more important.

Some extracts from the piece at Gay City News:

The 2005 election of Vendola, whose first name is pronounced “Nicky,” as president of Puglia (usually rendered as Apulia in English) surprised the nation. A well-known activist with ARCIGAY, the national lesbian and gay association, and also a leader of the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation Party), Vendola beat the candidate of Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition in a southeastern region of 4 million people usually regarded as conservative and Catholic.

But Vendola is also a Catholic and said at the time that “the most important book for a communist is the Bible.” In 2009, Vendola founded a new national party, Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL, or Left Ecology Liberty), and was triumphally re-elected as regional president earlier this year with a whopping 73 percent of the vote.

Today, the charismatic Vendola tops the public opinion polls as the most popular politician in the left opposition, and has declared his candidacy to become the head of its ticket at the next parliamentary elections. In polls, he either beats the Democratic Party’s lackluster leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, or trails him narrowly.

On the campaign stump, Vendola has not hesitated to confront the homophobes. In one re-election speech he said, “Do you really believe that happiness is only heterosexual? Do you really think a gay cannot be happy? No, it is not, it cannot be that way. What makes you miserable are hypocrisy, secrecy, fear of being what you are. Declaring who you are may be painful, even bring exclusion, even bring violence, but I’ve never been afraid to be who I am. And if there’s a thought that gives me more anxiety than that, it is to imagine living a lie. This is misery! Just this.”

Even if Vendola wins the contest to become the center-left’s leader, can he score a general election victory?

Homophobia is still alive and well in Catholic Italy, where attitudes are less tolerant than in many other Western European countries. A recent poll found that only 51 percent of the population believed that homosexual love should be regarded as equal to heterosexual love, while 35 percent believed that homosexuality should be tolerated as long as it’s not ostentatious and 9 percent defined it as immoral.

Nonetheless, Vendola does have admirers among the establishment.

In April, former center-left Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema said, “Nichi Vendola is the only one able to revive the idea of a modern left. The others seem too disoriented.”

And one commentator who believes that the clear contrast between Vendola and Berlusconi could turn the growing public disgust with the prime minister and the status quo into an enormous electoral strength for Puglia’s president is Curzio Maltese, a columnist for the country’s most respected daily, La Repubblica. Maltese, who last year authored a book on Berlusconi entitled “La Bolla” (“The Bubble”), pointing to Vendola’s strength in public opinion polls, said, “He has brought a sense of liberation — the idea of having a declared homosexual as prime minister!”

“We could be at the dawn of a huge rebellion,” Maltese added.

Read the full piece