If Leo Varadkar is to be a great Taoiseach, let it not be because he is gay, but because the marginalisation and shame he has known can give him a greater sensitivity to all parts of our society
Undoubtedly, I welcome the landmark ‘achievement’ of Ireland getting its first gay Taoiseach, though I’m wary of ‘gay’ quintessentially describing any person. Our being homos does not mean we’re all the same. Someone’s being gay shouldn’t necessarily mean that I have to identify with them, fuck them, or vote for them. Grindr is filled with gay men, but besides liking cock and being lonely and horny, what else do we have in common? Similarly, I would resent my identification or pride in any gay Taoiseach being reduced to the fact that he likes cock too. Now Ireland’s first transparent or truthful Taoiseach, or unprejudiced Taoiseach would be worth celebrating.
Leo, like all gay men and women, bears a legacy of internalised homophobia of one’s sexuality being an impediment if not impossibility to progress and/or happiness in life. Through the years I read his evasive answers to his personal life, and though understanding his impossible position, I never esteemed it. I listened acutely to his contributions to the Civil Partnership Bill in which he desexualised same-sex relationships in associating them with cohabiting siblings; in which he rejected same-sex parenting by saying: “Every child has the right to a mother and father and, as much as is possible, the State should vindicate that right. That is the principle that should underline our laws regarding children and adoption.”
But this was Leo before he was out, and like all of us in our pre-out days, we denied, did and said things where shame and fear dictated and decided too much. None of us ever come out from the shadow of homophobia, both internalised and externalised. This is and was the power of Panti’s 2015 Noble Call speech, to name our internalised homophobic self-policing, we all enact and repeat.
“ This anger pushes me at times to overcompensate and try to earn love by being better, beautiful, more sexy.
“When it really does hurt, is afterwards. Afterwards I wonder, worry, and obsess over what was it that gave me away? And I hate myself for wondering that. It feels oppressive.”
Those that denied, concealed or minimised their sexuality may be less wary in a post-marriage equality Ireland, but Leo, like us all, was born, educated, and sought employment in a pre-equality world, in a Catholic dominated culture, where homosexuality was illegal. In the ’90s, I was told it was career suicide to train, never mind work, as an out gay man in the Irish mental health services. I still wish I lived my life as uncensored and uncompromised as possible, but often I don’t. I came out, but homophobia still shadows.
Every LGBT mental health study has pinpointed low self-worth and poor self-esteem for being stigmatised as part of a reviled minority, in what author Alan Downs identifies as the ‘velvet rage’ – “a toxic cocktail of anger and rejection”.
“When a gay man forecloses on his crisis of identity, and represses his feelings in an attempt to live a straight life, his distress is immense. This becomes the root of depression or other ailments, and if not resolved, can grow into a variety of chronic and troubling psychological symptoms.”
This denying of a gay man’s crisis of identity involves a self-surveillance, a policing of self, especially when being gay carries implications of one being less a man. Hence the pressure on gay men to masculinise, indeed hypermasculinise themselves, through muscles, sex, alcohol and drug consumption, over-work, in order to not be emasculated by self or others.
As Grindr evidences, ‘masculine’, butch, ‘straight-acting’ muscled torsos are the objects of desire, marketed and consumed, creating such body anxieties and emotional/psychological angsts for men dominated by a dictate of ‘No pecs, no sex’. Even blind gay men I did research with spoke of wanting men with more ‘masculine’ voices, hairier arms, and valued sighted friends’ criticisms of potential partners as being too camp, too effeminate.
Alan Downs describes this dichotomy best in The Velvet Rage: “The deep and abiding anger that results from growing up in an environment when I learn that who I am as a gay person is unacceptable, perhaps even unlovable. This anger pushes me at times to overcompensate and try to earn love and acceptance by being more, better, beautiful, more sexy – in short, to become something I believe will make me more acceptable and loved.”
Leo, like all of us, has come a long way, but there is always both more to go, and a long shadow dragging in our wake. If he is to be a great Taoiseach, let it not be because he is gay, but because the marginalisation and shame he has known can give him a greater sensitivity to all parts of our society; to own both his privilege and his insecurity. That appreciation of his own issues, past and present, can help create a better land for those struggling with class, gender and isolation issues. Being gay has been the greatest gift for me as it allowed me a window that a white middle class male rarely has into marginalisation, segregation and indignity. Let none of us forget or neglect this window we came out through.
Ray is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist specialising in individual and relationship counselling. He can be contacted on 086 828 0033, or email