Gay politicians in Germany quitting the closet

August 02, 2004

Klaus Jetz, spokesman for the German Federation of Gays and Lesbians
BERLIN — Has homosexuality become fashionable in German politics? Perhaps not quite, but a recent clutch of movers and shakers "coming out" points to something afoot in the halls of power.

Guido Westerwelle, the head of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), caused a splash this summer when he appeared at a tony reception with his companion Michael Mronz, head of a regional equestrian society.

The couple has since been photographed regularly, and they even attended conservative leader Angela Merkel's 50th birthday party together last month.

Although the 42-year-old Westerwelle's sexual orientation had long been an open secret among the chattering classes in Berlin, his decision to go public with his partner would indicate he thinks the political gamble is now less risky.

Westerwelle, who has nevertheless declined comment on Mronz, is gunning for the post of foreign minister if the FDP and Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) manage to unseat the center-left coalition of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in 2006.

By laying his cards on the table now, he avoids making his sexuality an issue during the campaign and could even begin tapping new reservoirs of political support.

Westerwelle can look to the recent examples of gay trailblazers from across the political spectrum.

The mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit of Schroeder's Social Democrats, stole the fire of his potential critics when he was running for office in 2001 with the now immortal line: "I'm gay and it's just as good that way". The crowd roared.

In the conservative camp, Hamburg Mayor Ole von Beust was reelected in a landslide in February after his "coming-out".

And among the Greens, junior partners in the national coalition government, deputy Volker Beck has made no secret of his sexuality either, giving TV interviews on the issues of the day with a video of "Spartacus", a gay cult classic, occupying pride of place on the bookcase in his office.

Beck is the only prominent gay politician on the national stage who has turned his private preference into public policy, by leading the charge for state-sanctioned partnerships for same-sex couples.

The measure became law in 2001 against the fierce opposition of conservative parties.

"Candidates who are at peace with themselves are always more likely to win than to lose," said the director of the independent polling institute Emnid, Klaus-Peter Schoeppner.

A politician declaring his homosexuality "has absolutely no influence on what people think of his work," said the director of the Forsa polling group, Manfred Guellner.

Tolerance, however, has its limits. Nine percent of women say that a candidate's homosexuality could influence their voting decisions, and the figure is twice as high among men, according to Emnid.

Among conservatives, a full 45 percent say that the sexual orientation of a person running for office could affect their vote.

The rate was just one percent among members of the Greens party.

To varying degrees, homosexual politicians have abandoned their earlier bashfulness about joining the gay pride parades held in dozens of German cities every summer.

Even the Roman Catholic pilgrimage town Altoetting in Bavaria saw its own parade this year, complete with a contingent from the Greens and a handful of counterprotesters.

"If you want to win an election you cannot allow discrimination against gays. That includes the conservatives," the spokesman for the German Federation of Gays and Lesbians, Klaus Jetz, told AFP.

Although homosexuality was not officially decriminalized until 1994, "gays started to be truly accepted after the Social Democrats and Greens came to power" in 1998, Jetz said.

"Before, we did not even have a voice in the public debate," he said.

Today, the Federation receives public funds and is a partner in the construction of a national memorial for gay victims of the Nazis. – Sapa-AFP

Related stories
German FDP head confirms homosexuality, calls for gay rights [26/07/2004]



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