Ireland’s First Gay Prime Minister Reveals Evolving LGBT Attitudes

A 2016 study revealed Ireland as a trailblazer in LGBT acceptance. On Wednesday, Leo Varadkar became the country’s first openly gay leader.

Almost three weeks ago, Leo Varadkar was voted in as prime minister by Ireland’s main governing party, making him the country’s first openly gay leader. At age 38, he is Ireland’s youngest-ever Taoiseach.  And as the son of an Indian immigrant, he is the first ethnic minority to serve in this position. He assumed power last Wednesday, succeeding Enda Kenny, who resigned last month.

While he embodies many “firsts” for Ireland, Varadkar doesn’t see himself as a groundbreaker. He told state broadcaster RTÉ in 2015 that being gay is “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.”

Varadkar came out publicly in 2015 as the country approached a referendum on same-sex marriage, which became legal that year. But while his new role may seem like a triumph for progressive values, he is also a member of the center-right Fine Gael party and supports many conservative issues.

His rise to high office is, however, reflective of the broad and growing acceptance of LGBT people in this majority-Catholic country where homosexuality was banned until 1993. Last year, Logo and Viacom released the results of the ILGA-RIWI 2016 “Global Attitudes Survey on LGBTI People,” a poll of nearly 100,000 respondents in 65 countries, including Ireland. The study found Ireland to be a trailblazer in its positive attitudes toward their LGBT citizens.

Among the findings were that Ireland ranked highest of all countries surveyed for a number of questions related to LGBT rights and acceptance. They were most likely to believe same-sex marriage should be legal (78% vs. 43% global average), to agree that bullying of young LGBT people is a significant problem (71% vs. 51%), and to think that people who are attracted to the same sex are born that way (50% vs. 24%).

The survey also found that in Ireland, it’s common to have an LGBT person within circles of close family and friends. Two-thirds of Irish respondents (66%) said they personally knew a gay person and nearly 4 in 10 (37%) have a close family member or friend who is gay.  Other countries with similar awareness of gay family members and friends include Brazil (44%), Venezuela (42%), Cuba (42%), the United States (40%), the Philippines (39%), Costa Rica (38%), Mexico (38%) and Thailand (37%).

Respondents in Ireland were more likely to say their feelings towards LGBT people have become more favorable over the last 5 years (45% vs. 34% globally). Not surprisingly, knowing an LGBT person was the primary reason. Laws such as the 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage were also given as a strong reason for increasingly positive attitudes towards LGBT people.

As evidence of these shifting sentiments, a gay man now holds the most powerful job in Ireland.