Openly gay. Son of an Indian immigrant. A minority leader.
International headlines have all painted Leo Varadkar in the same manner since his leadership victory over Simon Coveney last night. Our often charismatic, sometimes controversial and surprisingly irreverent future Taoiseach has been boiled down to two distinct aspects on the world stage; sexual orientation and race.
Unconcerned with the minutiae of Irish policy, readers of the New York Times, Guardian or Al Jazeera are interested in the superficially progressive decision to appoint a young, gay, half-Indian man as the next leader of this country.
Their headlines reflect that.
Irish journalism did a bit better, focusing on Varadkar’s policy commitments, political history and the surprising lack of support amongst party members.
Congratulations abounded, as well-wishers across the world praised our new “openly gay PM” on a victory that must surely represent a rapidly changing, sparkling diverse society. Media outlets marvelled at our miraculous escape from a “once staunchly Catholic country.”
People tripped over themselves to point out that it was just 24 years since homosexuality ceased being a criminal offence.
Twitter users sent messages of glee to our newly accepting, totally tolerant isle, congratulating us on a momentous social victory.
Irish people were unimpressed.
“For my part, I don’t care that Leo Varadkar is the son of an immigrant, I don’t care that he’s gay. I care about what he will do for Ireland,” wrote one twitter user.
“Does anyone know Leo Varadkar’s sexual orientation? Nobody has mentioned it and it’s the crucial metric I judge world leaders on,” quipped another.
Accused of being divisive, brash, regressive and calculating in the weeks leading up to his election, Varadkar cannot expect to be granted a popularity pass simply for being gay. He can’t claim to represent generations of immigrants when he grew up in the pruned, affluent surrounds of Castleknock.
He should not be pegged as a symbol of progression, vision and change when his views mimic many of the right-wing, conservatives who have come before him.
Throughout his political career, he has been the man to support harsh mental health cuts, tout a conservative view on abortion and campaign against social welfare cheats.
He’s entitled to his opinions, but painting him as a liberal, progressive crusade is a stretch too far and Irish people know it.
Refusing to engage with the romanticism surrounding his victory, Irish people are asking what he will do in office, what cabinet he will assemble and how he will fare as a leader.
The only thing more progressive than electing a gay, half Indian leader is not caring about the aforementioned traits.
When Leo Varadkar publicly “came out” live on radio in 2015, he said: “It’s 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. It doesn’t define me. It is part of my character, I suppose.”
Last night he referred to himself as someone “judged by actions, not origins or identity.”
The world media needs to stop touting our new leader as a progressive hero, a symbol of change, an affront to our Catholic past. It diminishes Varadkar’s political career and can be chalked up to nothing more than superficial, surface-skimming reportage.
While it is entirely true that his election seemed impossible even a decade ago, his success should not be defined by his differences.
Marvelling at Varadkar’s election despite his sexuality or heritage is like lauding a female CEO’s success in a “man’s world”- condescending.
Like him or loathe him, our future Taoiseach will be heading up the Fine Gael party because of strong support from his Dáil colleagues and party representatives.
He has not been handed a token “gay card” for the sake of diversity and ought not be treated like it. Nor should he be symbolised as a revolutionary marvel.
Leo Varadkar should be judged on his performance in the role, as everyone who steps into office should. “Judged by actions, not origins or identity.”
The Irish public seem to have grasped this but can someone let the rest of the world know?