Irish leader Leo Varadkar has marched with his partner Matt in New York St Patrick’s Day Parade – which until recently banned LGBT groups.
Ireland’s out Taoiseach (prime minister) has been a trip to the US for St Patrick’s Day, already raising LGBT rights with Donald Trump and Mike Pence.
Mr Varadkar broke another barrier today – when he marched alongside his same-sex partner in New York St Patrick’s Day Parade.
Due to the strong influence of conservative Catholic groups, the parade had maintained a decades-long ban on LGBT groups. It slowly lifted the rule in 2016 and 2017, under pressure from commercial sponsors.
Mr Varadkar held hands with his partner Matt Barrett, a doctor who currently lives in the US, as they walked together in the parade.
Mr Barrett has eschewed many of the traditional roles associated with a leader’s partner or spouse, but appeared happy to support his boyfriend at the event.
Mr Varadkar acknowledged: “It was a real privilege to march with my partner. Only a few years ago people couldn’t march under the rainbow banner, but that has all changed.
“Ireland has embraced diversity and inclusiveness, and Irish Americans in New York have embraced that too.”
The leader also paid a visit to the Stonewall Inn – the birthplace of the modern LGBT rights movement ahead of the march.
He wrote: “My first visit to the Stonewall monument. Really proud to be here #StPatricksDay”
Ahead of the parade, Mr Varadkar told media: “On a personal level it’s a real privilege to be here in New York, in a city that is so close to Ireland in so many different ways.
“I had a chance to meet the Mayor [Bill de Blasio] earlier and attend Mass, and I’m going to be able to march in the parade now with my partner which is something that is a sign, I think, of change, a sign of great diversity, not just in Ireland, but in the community here as well.”
Two gay men as guests of honour sent a powerful message, just two years on from a bitter feud over LGBT participants.
Due to the anti-gay policy, Democratic mayor Bill de Blasio had shunned the parade every year since his election– and the event has also faced a large commercial boycott and protests over the exclusion of LGBT groups.
Mayor de Blasio took part for the first time in 2016 after the ban was relaxed, saying: “The St Patrick’s Day parade is a New York City tradition, but for years Irish LGBT New Yorkers could not show their pride.
“Finally, they can celebrate their heritage by marching in a parade that now represents progress and equality.”
In addition to commercial and political pressure, the change in policy was attributed in part to the corporations that fund the parade.
In 2015, the LGBT groups of one of the parade’s biggest sponsors, [email protected], was allowed to march as part of NBC’s contingent – while other groups remained banned.
Elsewhere on his trip, Mr Varadkar ended up alone in a room with Mike Pence.
In a break from political convention, media were banned from Vice President’s meeting with Mr Varadkar, who is one of just a few openly gay world leaders.
LGBT rights groups suspect that the reporting ban was put in place by the VP to avoid him being called out publicly on his anti-LGBT record.
Mr Varadkar has now spoken about how the meeting went down – though, naturally, his account of affairs is diplomatic.
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He confirmed: “I did privately manage to speak to them about equality and my support for equal rights for women and the LGBT community here in America and also in Ireland.”
The leader did not recount Mr Pence’s response.
However, he said that the Vice President expressed an interest in meeting his boyfriend.
Mr Varadkar continued: “They were very well briefed.
“They knew about my personal story, they knew that my partner was living in Chicago, and they said that both Matt and I would both be welcome to visit their home in future, so I thought that was a very nice gesture.
“There are so many ifs and maybes, first of all I have to survive another year in my current office and secondly, Matt is not terribly keen to attend official functions but you never know.”
Mr Varadkar’s office were said to be furious after the Vice President’s office acted to ban the media from the meeting in a break from convention.
The leader himself criticised the ban, but added: “It allows us maybe to have a frank conversation that’s easier to have without the media present.”
A hardline evangelical who has not supported a single LGBT reform across nearly two decades in politics, VP Pence has one of the worst records on equality of any US leader since Ronald Reagan.