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Iceland's PM marks gay milestone

By Vanessa Buschschluter
BBC News

Johanna Sigurdardottir
Few Icelanders seem concerned about the PM's sexual orientation

Johanna Sigurdardottir, named as Iceland's prime minister on Sunday, is the first openly lesbian head of government in Europe, if not the world - at least in modern times.

The 66-year-old's appointment as an interim leader, until elections in May, is seen by many as a milestone for the gay and lesbian movement.

Up until now, if a gay man or woman has been prime minister, they have done their best to conceal the fact.

In Iceland itself, however, the new prime minister's sexual orientation appears to be causing less excitement than it is abroad.


A pink curtain divides us

Juris Lavrikovs of the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA)

What is really historic about this new cabinet, says Skuli Helgeson, the general secretary of Ms Sigurardottir's Social Democratic Alliance, is not the fact that its leader is a lesbian, but that for the first time in Icelandic history it boasts an equal number of men and women.

"I don't think her sexual orientation matters. Our voters are pretty liberal, they don't care about any of that," he told BBC News.

But not all European countries are as tolerant, says Juris Lavrikovs of the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) in Brussels.

There is a huge divide between eastern and western Europe, he says.

"The countries of the former Soviet Union were cut off from some of the social developments which have brought us this far in the past 50 years.

"A pink curtain divides us. And it will probably take a long time for eastern European countries to reach the same level of tolerance," Mr Lavrikovs says.

However, even in these countries he notes signs of change.

"In Latvia, where I'm from, some of the political parties are approaching gay, lesbian and transgender groups and talking to them about including gay candidates in their party lists," he says.

No reason to hide

In most of western Europe the coming-out of a politician will still make headlines.


I always imagined that the world would fall in if people found out

Matthew Parris, former British Conservative MP

Only last week, Roger Karoutchi became the first French government minister to disclose his homosexuality.

A minister for parliamentary relations, he said he was happy with his male partner and saw no reason to hide it.

But friends of his have been quoted as saying that he came out with the revelation because "attacks by his enemies" left him no choice.

Matthew Parris, who served as a Conservative Member of Parliament in Britain from 1979 until 1986, says politicians are often more worried than they should be about making their sexual orientation public.

"Speaking from my own experience, I was sort of in the closet when I was an MP, and I always imagined that the world would fall in if people found out," he says.

GLAD TO BE OPENLY GAY/BISEXUAL

Ben Bradshaw, UK health minister
Roger Karoutchi, French minister for parliamentary relations
Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, leader Italian Green Party
Bertrand Delanoe, mayor of Paris
Klaus Wowereit, mayor of Berlin
Jeronimo Saavedra, mayor of Las Palmas
"Well, when I finally did come clean, it turned out most of my constituents had guessed already and didn't give a damn!"

He believes gay politicians are often still frightened to come out.

"They tend to hear the reactionary minority that speaks out against homosexuality, not the majority who quietly approve.

"If they came out, they'd be pleasantly surprised by the public reaction!"

He sees no barrier to a gay or lesbian politician making it to the top job in British politics within the next decade.

Machismo

Despite the Spanish Socialist Party's strong backing for gay rights, there are currently no openly gay members in Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero's government.


I think we're more likely to see a gay man governing Spain before we ever see a straight woman as prime minister

Silvia Jaen, secretary-general of the Spanish Federation of Gays, Lesbians, Transsexuals and Bisexuals

Nevertheless, Silvia Jaen, secretary-general of the Spanish Federation of Gays, Lesbians, Transsexuals and Bisexuals says the country is ready for a gay prime minister.

"These days, homosexuality gives you neither an advantage nor a disadvantage in politics.

"There was a time when you would have received a lot of extra press coverage for being gay - these days it's a footnote."

She does however say that gay politicians in the conservative Popular Party still face opposition from some of their Catholic base.

"But we're miles away from the days of Franco. According to a recent poll, 72% of Spanish voters support equal rights for homosexuals," she says.

Ms Jaen does believe there is still a deeply ingrained machismo in Spanish society.

"Female ministers get a lot more stick from the press, be it because of what they're wearing or how they're behaving.

"I think we're more likely to see a gay man governing Spain before we ever see a straight woman as prime minister."

Sea change

Both Silvia Jaen and Juris Lavrikovs think Iceland's lesbian prime minister has made history.

Until now, Ms Sigurdardottir - who was joined in a civil partnership with Jonina Leosdottir in 2002 - has been a popular Social Affairs minister. In one recent Gallup poll, 73% of respondents said they were satisfied with her work.

"Here's a shining example of a country which has overcome its prejudices against those of a different sexual orientation," says Mr Lavrikovs.

"It won't cause any overnight changes, but it'll send a signal which can't be ignored."

And Silvia Jaen says that by simply turning up with her civil law partner at official ceremonies and state visits, Johanna Sigurdardottir will already force other European leaders to confront their prejudices.

"If I could, I would take the next plane to Reykjavik to celebrate with Ms Sigurdardottir.

"It's not only a victory for lesbians, it's a victory for women, actually make that a victory for all!"

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