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Iceland gets lesbian PM

Queer politicians hold office around the world

WAS SHE FIRST? Iceland's recently appointed prime minister, Johanna Sigurdardottir. Stephen Colbert joked on his show that Canada already has a lesbian prime minister: Stephen Harper. Credit: Government of Iceland

Johanna Sigurdardottir, the recently appointed prime minister of Iceland, just might be the first openly gay politician to serve as a country’s political leader.

Sigurdardottir, formerly the social affairs minister, was sworn in as prime minister on Feb 1. She will head a coalition government formed following the collapse of Iceland’s previous government amid a deep economic crisis. Iceland will hold parliamentary elections in May.

Sigurdardottir is one of Iceland’s most-popular politicians. In November, despite the country’s economic meltdown, she had an approval rating of 73 percent in an opinion poll. She has even been nicknamed “Saint Johanna” by some for her advocacy on behalf of the handicapped and elderly.

Her sexual orientation appears to be largely a nonissue in the country.

“It’s by no means a big deal,” Ingo Sigfusson of Iceland’s public broadcaster RUV told the BBC. “It’s been reported, but it’s not something the public is focussing on.

“On the one hand Iceland is a fairly liberal, tolerant country when it comes to homosexuality. On the other hand she’s never been particularly public about her private life, even though her partner is listed on the parliament’s website.

“Whom the new prime minister crawls into bed with at night seems to be fairly far down the list of priorities for people.”

Sigurdardottir’s office did not respond to a request for an interview with Xtra.

In 2002 Per-Kristian Foss of Norway’s Conservative party became acting prime minister for several days when the officeholder was visiting South Korea.

Canadians seem unlikely to have the opportunity any time soon to elect an openly gay politician as prime minister, although Stephen Colbert did joke on his show, “How many lesbian prime ministers can the world handle? We already have Canada’s Stephen Harper.”

Federally there are a number of gay and lesbian politicians. The Liberals have Mario Silva, Rob Oliphant and Scott Brison; the NDP has Libby Davies and Bill Siksay; and the Bloc has Réal Ménard. None is a party leader.

George Smitherman is the deputy premier of Ontario and is a contender to be the next leader of the provincial Liberal party. In Quebec André Boisclair became the first openly gay leader of a Canadian political party with seats in a legislature in 2005. He quit politics in 2007.

Chris Lea, the leader of the Green Party of Canada from 1990 to 1996, was the first openly gay leader of a Canadian political party. The party won no seats during his time as leader.

Internationally gay and lesbian politicians, and a few trans ones, have held office at all levels of government from municipal to federal in countries around the world, including Australia, the US, France, Germany, Spain, Israel, New Zealand, Holland, the UK, Brazil, Switzerland, Italy, Mexico, Hungary, Finland, Japan, Austria and Nepal.

Gay and lesbian politicians have not been immune to trouble. In 2002 Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn was assassinated for calling calling Islam “a backward culture” and calling for a stop to Muslim immigration. Jorg Haider, the leader of a far-right, anti-immigrant party, was outed by his supposed lover after his death in October 2008.