Out at the Top: Europe’s Gay Leaders

When Iceland installed Johanna Sigurdardottir as Prime Minister last February, newspapers around the globe printed variations of the same headline: ICELAND APPOINTS WORLD’S FIRST GAY LEADER. Everywhere, that is, except Iceland. The Icelandic media didn’t mention Sigurdardottir’s sexuality for days, and only then to point out that the foreign press had taken an interest in their new head of state — a 67-year-old former flight attendant turned politician whom voters had consistently rated Iceland’s most trustworthy politician. Sure, she was gay and had entered a civil partnership with another woman in 2002. But Icelanders hardly seemed to notice. “The media silence echoed the sentiment of the public. Nobody cared about her sexual orientation,” says Margret Bjornsdottir, the director of the Institute for Public Administration and Politics at the University of Iceland. “Being gay is a nonissue here. It’s considered unremarkable.”

Buoyed by liberal attitudes such as those, politicians across Western Europe are stepping out of the closet and into their country’s highest political offices. Eleven openly gay men and women now serve in the British Parliament, including two in the Cabinet. Last June, Nicolas Sarkozy appointed Frédéric Mitterrand, a gay television presenter, to the post of Minister of Culture. Paris’ Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, tipped by some to contest the 2012 presidential race, is gay. And Guido Westerwelle, chairman of Germany’s Free Democratic Party, has just become his country’s Foreign Minister, joining a gay élite that includes the mayors of Berlin and Hamburg, Germany’s two largest cities. Klaus Wowereit, Berlin’s mayor, says coming out ahead of the 2001 mayoral race while under pressure from tabloids strengthened his campaign. “My confession might have contributed to my popularity,” he says. “Many people appreciate honesty.”

(Read the story on TIME.com)

That’s a far cry from the climate in most of the U.S., where — despite the recent election of Annise Parker, a gay woman, as mayor of Houston, America’s fourth largest city — honesty can still end a gay politician’s career. Openly gay politicians such as San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk began winning seats in U.S. cities with large gay populations in the 1970s. Progress has since slowed, says David Rayside, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. He believes that the relative strength of incumbency in the U.S. creates a barrier to the corridors of power, as does “the strength of religious conservatives.” Of the 511,000 elected offices in the U.S. — from local school boards way up to President — openly gay men and women occupy just 450 of them, according to the U.S.-based Victory Fund, an organization that offers financial support to gay political candidates. No openly gay person has ever sat in the Senate, and only three hold seats in the House of Representatives.

The gap between the U.S. and Europe doesn’t just exist at the top: 49% of Americans polled by the Pew Research Center in 2007 believed that society should “accept” homosexuality. Contrast that with attitudes in Europe where more than 80% of French, Germans and Spaniards had such a view. Only Catholic and conservative Poles felt as uncomfortable with the idea as Americans. Denis Dison, a spokesman for the Victory Fund, says those attitudes can make it difficult for gay people to campaign — let alone obtain office. “In places where the climate isn’t friendly, it’s hard for them to even go into a town hall meeting or public forum because they get such nasty questions.”

The European Difference
Europe’s political landscape has not always been so welcoming. Thirty years ago, as Sigurdardottir began her political career, “Iceland was extremely homophobic,” says Baldur Thorhallsson, a political scientist at the University of Iceland. Education changed that. Over the last 30 years Samtokin ’78, a Reykjavik-based gay-rights organization, worked with the national media to produce news programs that gave gay men and women a human face, and acquainted the public with the prejudice gays encounter. Activists visited high schools to create gay role models and counter stereotypes. By 1996 the country had legalized gay civil unions, and Sigurdardottir had served as a Cabinet minister. Today, only 6% of Icelandic clergymen say they would refuse to perform a gay marriage. “We’re a small country of 300,000 people, so news spreads quickly,” Thorhallsson says. “If you get on the main news program, your message will reach everybody.”

In larger countries like Britain, with relatively deeper pockets of conservatism, progress has come more slowly. In 1988, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government passed a Local Government Act, Section 28 of which barred the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools and defined gay partnerships as “pretended family relationships.” Such homophobia emboldened both gay-rights advocates and future politicians. “People came out who otherwise wouldn’t have, and it woke up our heterosexual friends and family,” says Michael Cashman, now a Labour Member of the European Parliament. In 1989, Cashman and actor Ian McKellen co-founded campaign group Stonewall. Around the same time, Cashman played the role of a kindhearted gay man on popular BBC soap opera EastEnders. As Cashman says: “We moved on and politics eventually followed.”

By 1997, when Tony Blair’s Labour government came to power, the ground was shifting. Chris Smith, the only out MP for 14 years, was named Minister of Culture. “The really astonishing thing was that no one pointed out a gay man had been appointed to the Cabinet,” he says from Britain’s Environment Agency, which he now runs. The same year in Exeter, a constituency in southwestern England, Conservative party candidate Adrian Rogers attacked his openly gay opponent Ben Bradshaw by describing homosexuality as “a sterile, disease-ridden and godforsaken occupation.” Voters awarded Bradshaw the seat, in one of the biggest swings away from the Conservatives in the country that year. “He tried to use my sexuality as a political weapon and that blew up in his face,” says Bradshaw, now the U.K.’s Minister of Culture. “That election was a huge sea change in our politics. Since then we’ve been in a new world.”

Gay-baiting has proved equally ineffective in Germany. Andreas Heilmann, a social scientist at Berlin’s Humboldt University, believes that a politician who discloses his sexual orientation is insulated from criticism. “They embody a certain authenticity and credibility because they’re open,” he says. By contrast, opponents who make sexuality an issue are typically viewed as mean-spirited and politically incompetent. When Hamburg’s former vice mayor Ronald Schill outed the city’s Mayor Ole von Beust at a press conference in 2003, Germans mocked Schill, and Von Beust went on to win the 2004 elections in a landslide.

It helps that Europe’s liberal laws — 18 European countries allow gay marriage or same-sex civil unions, and gay couples in nine countries can adopt children — have largely normalized perceptions of gays. Christophe Girard, the deputy mayor of Paris, believes the legal framework for gay partnerships has “forced respect.” (Girard is in a civil partnership with his partner of 13 years and has two children). “Gays are no longer just seen as partiers, but also as parents,” he says. Paris, of course, is not rural France. But even in Barsac, a village of 2,200 people in the country’s southwest, gay leaders have seen progress. Philippe Meynard, the mayor for five years, says his own visibility has influenced local attitudes. “People have become aware that a gay person isn’t a caricature,” he says. People now judge him primarily by his work building parking lots and beautifying the village.

Demographic shifts may also play a part. For a growing number of people in a continent grappling with how to assimilate migrants, the gay community can seem less threatening than recent arrivals from the Muslim world. “It’s creepy,” says Rayside of the University of Toronto, “but sexual minorities are seen as a safer and more respectable minority because they know what ‘Britishness’ or ‘Dutchness’ is.” A 2008 poll, for example, found that while only 27% of Dutch voters would approve of a Muslim Prime Minister, 78% would approve of a homosexual in the same role.

The Road Ahead
For its part, Britain’s Conservative Party has come a long way since Section 28, which the Labour government repealed in 2003. David Cameron, the Tory leader, apologized for the law at a gay-pride event last June. In October, the Conservatives even organized an official “gay night” at their annual party conference. Among gay activists, debate still rages over whether leaders who have not gone public with their sexuality should do so. Girard, the deputy mayor of Paris, knows several elected officials who keep their sexuality private. “By not accepting their homosexuality publicly, closeted politicians are holding back progress,” he says. So long as they remain hidden, he argues, gay leaders will remain an oddity. “I don’t mean that they have to wave a banner, but just be calm and confident about it.”

Wowereit, Berlin’s mayor, is all of those things: he regularly appears with his neurosurgeon boyfriend at public events and ran for office with the slogan “I’m gay and that’s a good thing.” But even he doesn’t believe a level playing field exists yet. “As long as the sexual orientation of a candidate is publicly discussed at all,” he says, “one has to assume that it’s still not normal for a gay person to aim for such a position.”

Still, that’s a long way from the climate faced by many gay politicians in America. Opponents of gay candidates there often focus the race on sexuality — and have found that it wins them more votes. Jim Roth, former Oklahoma county commissioner and the state’s first publicly elected gay official, says that in 2002, rivals wrongly claimed his partner had AIDS. In 2006, church groups, he says, passed out literature claiming he would “advance the homosexual agenda.” In 2008, while running for a post to oversee the state’s energy resources, he faced similar attacks and lost. “Their coordinated attacks on my sexuality really resonated in parts of Oklahoma,” he says. “How do you respond to a ridiculous anti-gay-only message?” One answer: don’t. During the home stretch of Houston’s mayoral race in December, Annise Parker simply ignored attacks on her sexuality, and won.

For a group fighting for the right to marry and serve in the military while openly gay, success in politics is about more than pride. “We need to have people at the table of power when decisions are being made about our lives,” says Dison of the Victory Fund. “Our straight allies and nonallies get to know us as human beings, and that tends to affect hearts and minds.”

In Iceland, Sigurdardottir now sits at the head of that table. In a country where gay men and women have few battles left to fight, she’s thought of first as a politician. That may explain the media’s indifference to her sexuality. Some editors in Reykjavik say they ignored it to respect Sigurdardottir’s privacy. Thorhallsson, of the University of Iceland, who is himself gay, believes that shows there is still work to be done. “It’s a strange claim because she isn’t in the closet,” he says. “It shows that the media doesn’t really know how to handle gay politicians.” Perhaps. But only in Iceland could overlooking the Prime Minister’s sexual orientation be taken as a slight. In many other parts of the world, that would count as a victory.