Most teenagers have probably never given Iceland much of a thought. In fact, most teenagers probably can’t even find Iceland on a map unless they’ve taken a world geography course before. I, on the other hand, desperately longed to live there when I was a teenager. What was it about the land of fire and ice that intrigued me so much? It was the fact that Iceland was the first country to ever have an openly gay head of state.
Now, as a more mature 25-year-old trans woman, I’m absolutely thrilled by the fact that there’s a very real chance that my home country might be led by an openly gay individual. Obviously, I’m referring to Mayor Pete Buttegieg of South Bend, Indiana.
He’s surging in recent Iowa polls, which is miraculous considering the fact that marriage equality was granted nationwide only four years ago. Whether or not he ends up emerging victorious from the crowded 2020 Democratic primary field, we, the LGBTQ community and the country as a whole, should take a minute and consider what having an openly gay head of state might actually look like. Examples of other gay heads of state are limited, but they do exist.
As I previously mentioned, Iceland became the first country to be led by an openly gay head of state when Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir became prime minister in 2009. When discussing Sigurðardóttir and the trail that she blazed, it should be noted that Iceland’s political system is significantly different than the one that the US operates under. Additionally, the country is more socially liberal in general. But despite all that, Sigurðardóttir’s achievement of ascending to the highest office in the land is no less astonishing.
Tapped to lead her country in the midst of the 2008 Icelandic financial crisis because of her national popularity, Sigurðardóttir, who spent more than a quarter-century in service to her country, cemented the fact that sexuality has nothing to do with one’s competency a year before the country decided to legalize same-sex marriage.
A more recent example for Buttegieg supporters to look to is Leo Varadkar, the current taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland. While the US was celebrating, or perhaps crying over, the one-and-a-half-year anniversary of the Trump presidency, Ireland welcomed its first-ever openly LGBTQ taoiseach, which was no small feat for a country that is more than 70% Catholic, a religion that is still vehemently opposed to people like Varadkar.
Aside from the fact that they’re both openly gay, there are other similarities between Buttegieg and Varadkar. For instance, Varadkar was 38-years-old when he assumed the position, which is the same age that Buttegieg will be during next November’s general election. They’re also both the children of immigrants – Varadkar’s father came to Ireland from India and Buttegieg’s father is originally from Malta. And lastly, Buttegieg and Varadkar both came out in 2015, well after both of their political careers had been established.
In addition to Iceland and Ireland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Serbia are led by or have been led by openly gay heads of state. Now it shouldn’t be overlooked that all of these countries are in Europe, a continent that has historically been more socially progressive than we have been in the US, but Serbia in particular is an apt comparison given that it’s located in Eastern Europe, a region that historically hasn’t been as forward-thinking as Western Europe.
Additionally, it shouldn’t be overlooked that all five countries that have been led by an openly gay head of state operate under parliamentary systems, systems that are far easier for minorities to advance in. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged the notion that parliamentary systems are more open to women, which I believe is also true concerning LGBTQ leaders, back in 2017 when she said, “We have a presidential system. Parliamentary systems, historically, have proven more open to women. And why would that be? Because you have a party apparatus to support you.”
Given the diversity of gender, sexuality, age, and ethnicity of the world’s first five openly gay heads of state, it’s difficult not to believe that issues of identity aren’t all that important to voters throughout the world. Instead, they seem to value competency and the ability to get things done. Hopefully those of us in the US aren’t all that far off from being able to join the ranks of the countries – Iceland, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Republic of Ireland, and Serbia – that have created a road map for us.