Germany Has a Gay Minister — Yäwn!

Guido Westerwelle, Germany's new vice-chancellor and foreign minister, is very popular and openly gay. And nobody in Germany cares.

Joern Pollex/Getty Images
Joern Pollex/Getty Images

For more than 50 years, the tabloid daily Bild — currently Europe’s best-selling newspaper — has served as both a reliable barometer of Germany’s conservative movement and a steady vent of its populist id. The editors have never felt compelled to question their winning formula: The conservative parties’ current talking points go above the fold, the naked "Page One Girl" below it. The self-appointed guarantors of all that is traditionally Deutsch aren’t much interested in the finer points of sensitivity training.

And in that way, the tabloid might have been expected at some point this week to express ambivalence, if not disapproval, of the fact that the country’s newly elected vice-chancellor and foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, is gay. Instead, though, Bild waved a white flag on one of the fronts of the country’s decades-long culture war. As part of its gleeful coverage of the victory of the country’s two main conservative parties in Sunday’s election, the newspaper paid its respect to Westerwelle in the form of a sentimental page-one profile of his boyfriend, complete with a trashy headline: "His Boyfriend Makes Him Strong!"

Taking its cues from voters, Bild‘s editors didn’t wring their hands over Westerwelle’s sexual orientation, nor did they sensationalize it as a novelty. For one thing, it wasn’t news: The chairman of the FDP, the free market Free Democratic Party, hadn’t hidden his sexual orientation during the campaign — his partner, event manager Michael Mronz, was often on stage with him at his rallies — and no one he encountered on the trail seemed inclined to make an issue of it. Being a gay politician in Germany, it seems, is well on its way to being utterly normal, even banal.

Germany’s ready public acceptance of homosexuality is the product of recent sea changes both in the character of society and in the letter of national law. For much of western Germany’s history, neither the CDU, the Catholic-dominated Christian Democratic Union, nor the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD), with its focus on the industrial working class, had much interest in setting up protections for gays. In eastern Germany, the ruling communist party dismissed homosexuality as "contrary to the healthy mores of the people." Nazi-era laws that criminalized homosexuality remained in force in East Germany until 1958 and in West Germany until as late as 1969.

Change didn’t come easy. The gay-rights movement that began organizing in earnest in West Germany in the 1960s — part of the student-driven backlash that wanted to interrogate and overcome the country’s Nazi past — elicited strong conservative resistance. For decades, the polarized camps faced off in homes, universities, and city streets in a tense stalemate. When Helmut Kohl took office as chancellor in 1982 at the head of a "black-yellow" coalition between the CDU and the FDP, he promised a "moral-spiritual revolution" that would return the country to its traditional understanding of public morality and decorum. What that amounted to, during his 16 years at the head of German government, was periodic populist agitation against politically correct cultural liberals in the arts and academia. Certainly, it was unthinkable that a gay man would gain a major portfolio in the Kohl-led coalition that governed until 1998. (Westerwelle, as a high-ranking FDP official, was involved in the Kohl government, but didn’t come out of the closet until 2004.)

How, then, has the tide turned so dramatically in Germany in favor of acceptance of homosexuality? On the legal and political side, the gay-rights movement was fortunate to have found an amenable political home in the late 1970s in the fledgling Green Party. Although dismissed by the establishment in their early years, the Greens came into power in 1999, together with the SPD, with a clear and focused agenda to update German law to better reflect society’s present-day values.

In addition to reform of immigration and citizenship statutes, the Greens pushed through a law recognizing same-sex partnerships and also rooted out the final remnants of legalized discrimination against gays in the German military. These efforts were passed with the support of the left-leaning SPD and Westerwelle’s free market, culturally liberal FDP. Westerwelle, for his part, blasted the Catholic Church for its "19th-century worldview" in response to a call by the Vatican to campaign against the gay-marriage law.

Germany’s religious landscape also factors into the relative serenity with which its society addresses homosexuality. In a country where 30 percent of the population considers itself atheist, it is hard to drum up fervor against sexual orientation: To that extent, reunification with East Germany — which was predominantly atheist, according to communist ideology — has made the country, as a whole, a friendlier place for gays. Moreover, Germany’s institutionalized Lutheran Protestant church, to which another 30 percent of the country adheres, is considerably more liberal than most evangelical Protestant denominations in the United States. Germany’s Lutheran church allows gays to become priests, and in some instances, blesses same-sex marriages.

Even the CDU, the traditionally Catholic mainstay of conservative West Germany, isn’t as obeisant to Rome as it once was. Chancellor Angela Merkel — head of the CDU, albeit one who was raised by a Protestant pastor in East Germany — did not hesitate to criticize German-born Pope Benedict XVI when he reinstated excommunicated bishops who had denied the Holocaust. No one in the CDU felt inclined to agitate against fellow party member Ole von Beust when he outed himself during his first term as mayor of Hamburg. And the last CDU candidate to run for mayor of Cologne saw no contradiction in referring to himself both as a gay man and a "serious Catholic."

Indeed, once politicians come out of the closet, German voters tend to be concerned less about their private lives than about their other personal qualities. It’s no coincidence that those who have unabashedly staked claim to their sexual preferences have usually earned bonus points among the public. "When a politician deals openly with his homosexuality, he comes across as more authentic," says Werner Patzelt, a political science professor at Dresden Technical University.

There’s still a city-country divide in Germany when it comes to acceptance of homosexuality. Gays still have a harder time in Bavaria, where traditional adherence to the Catholic Church in small towns is very strong. It’s not surprising then that the first major public official to come out of the closet was Klaus Wowereit, the mayor of Berlin, the city where Germany’s live-and-let-live ethos is strongest. Wowereit didn’t mince words in his unabashed 2001 coming out. "I’m gay," he declared, "and that’s a good thing!" He has also earned admirers for the way he has managed to fend off political rivals who have tried to make an issue of his homosexuality. When his latest CDU challenger, Friedbert Pflüger, suggested Berlin deserves to have "a first lady," Wowereit shot back that at least he was in a steady relationship, whereas Pflüger was in the midst of a divorce.

It’s not for nothing that, after charming the capital city, Wowereit is being handled as the potential next chancellor candidate from the SPD. Bild, of course, likely won’t be extending him an endorsement. But, it won’t be his sexual orientation that’s standing in the way — just the fact that he’s a Social Democrat.

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi