Colour and Creed: Pink Politics in Action

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by Annabel Cooper, Presenter and Online Reporter

One month in and 2009 has already been a year for political firsts. As Barack Obama had barely settled himself into his new seat in the Oval Office, news broke that Icelandic politics was to have a pioneering leader of its own. The crippling financial crisis and ill health cut short Geir Haarde’s premiership and up-stepped former social affairs minister, Johanna Sigurdardottir, to become the world’s first openly gay head of state. She will preside over a coalition of her social democratic party with the Left-Greens until the elections in May at least. So what it is about Iceland and their new lesbian leader that has made this unprecedented appointment possible? And if they can do it, can we Brits do it too?

[caption id=”attachment_1728” align=”alignleft” width=”184” caption=”Sigurdardottir”][/caption]

This small north Atlantic nation has always had a reputation for quietly progressive politics and was the first to elect a female head of state in 1980 when Vigdís Finnbogadóttir became its 4th president. She went on to serve three terms as leader (ring any bells?). But despite widespread coverage of this pioneering woman’s election in the 80s and a keen interest from the international press in Sigurdardottir’s promotion this week, Icelandic voters are bemused by the furore.  For them, “Saint Johanna” as she’s affectionately known, is the natural choice.

Sigurdardottir, 66, who lives with her journalist and playwright partner Jonina Leosdottir (the two were joined in a civil ceremony in 2002), has a long background in Icelandic liberal politics. She is Iceland’s longest serving MP (30 years) and is the only minister to retain popularity in the wake of the country’s financial meltdown. As the banking system and national currency collapsed around them, a poll of voters in November last year gave Sigurdardottir a 73 per cent popularity rating. And to think of this in relation to her conservative predecessor, whose politics prompted demonstrations unseen in the country for 50 years, gives a telling picture of the Icelandic people’s fondness for her.

“She is often described as the only politician to really care about the little guy,” wrote Icelandic journalist Iris Erlingsdottir in her blog this week. Sigurdardottir’s quiet and steady rise to power boasts a dedication to the welfare and equality of minority groups and unlike many other Icelandic politicians, she holds no “fancy foreign diplomas”, nor any extensive family or wealth connections. Three decades ago she was a flight attendant and a union official.

Ben Bradshaw, the UK’s first MP to be ‘out’ when elected, can see her appeal. He said: “It’s telling that Icelanders have turned to such a candidate in these unstable financial times. Sigurdardottir represents a move towards the openness and transparency that was lacking in the political and financial systems in the West.” It seems to make sense then that a country bruised by the murky world of finance would want to put its trust in the hands of such a ‘normal’ candidate.

But let’s be honest, Sigurdardottir isn’t just any other ‘normal’ candidate. The world’s first gay head of state is big news. Isn’t it?

“Who cares?” writes journalist Iris Erlingsdottir. “No one has ever talked about Johanna (Icelanders always use first names) as a gay person,” she continues quoting a friend. “She’s not hiding it, the name of her spouse is on her Parliament and Ministry web pages, it’s just that nobody cares.”

But that’s not to say that Iceland is a byword for apathy. The explosive reaction of its people to the mistakes of the last government is testament to that. It’s just that politician’s sex lives don’t seem to bother the inhabitants of one of the oldest democracies in the world. Is it, therefore, this disregard for Sigurdardottir’s personal life that makes her appointment possible in the first place? And consequently does this mean that gossip-hungry Britain is unlikely to ever elect its own gay leader?

I put these questions to Britain’s only lesbian MP, Angela Eagle. She said: “There are big differences between the UK and Iceland that you must take into account when making a comparison. Iceland has a population the size of Bradford so maybe there’s less at stake. Also this is a pioneering country with a long history of liberal politics and there isn’t the same expectation that a politician will be white, middle class and male. And finally, Iceland has been through a period of great uncertainty and very sudden change and often in politics this can bring about new beginnings. In this case, a liberal-Green coalition government headed by a gay woman”

So under the same circumstances is Britain ready to elect its own gay PM? “I think British people are way ahead of the tabloids on this issue and they don’t regard being gay as a barrier. Since coming out I’ve been re-elected three times, so my sexuality certainly hasn’t stood in my way. There’s obviously much more to me as an MP and a person. But saying that I’m still the only gay woman in parliament, so if you want a lesbian PM, there’s only one choice!”

Look out Gordon Brown. And what does Ben Bradshaw MP think of our chances of having a gay leader? “I think the UK has one of the most progressive legal frameworks in the world and we have in some ways been setting the standard for the rest of the world” Bradshaw told me. “In the right circumstances and with the right candidate there is no reason why Britain couldn’t have a gay leader. With Barack Obama leading the USA and Johanna Sigurdardottir driving Iceland, taboos are falling all over the world.”

It appears then that the Western world is primed for taboo-breaking change and Sigurdardottir’s appointment is the same inevitable move to liberalism that swung it in her US counterpart’s favour. But although hers is a significant appointment, both she and Obama still have a lot to prove.  Ultimately they will both be judged and remembered by their actions in government and not by their sexuality or the colour of their skin. In the meantime we’ll try not to make too much of a fuss.

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