Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Belgium Appoints Gay Prime Minister

By Taylor Pool
Edited by Adam Flango

            The name of the recently appointed Prime Minister of Belgium, Elio Di Rupo, will go down in history for more than one reason.
            Not only has Di Rupo, a member of the Socialist Party, taken his position in the Belgian parliament after the country experienced an almost 600-day-long hiatus from a central Belgian government, but Di Rupo is French-speaking and homosexual.
            Pascal Smet, Minister of Education, Youth Policy, Equal Opportunities and Brussels Affairs, confirmed that Di Rupo is the first openly homosexual prime minister in Belgium’s history. Di Rupo is only the second head of state in the world to be openly homosexual, with Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, Prime Minister of Iceland, being the first when she took office in 2009.
            The naming of a homosexual head of state has not yet been accomplished in many countries such as the United States; however, this feat was not heavily reported by the Belgian media.
            Some media outlets reported more on the controversy that Di Rupo was not fluent in Flemish than about issues having to do with his sexual orientation. 
            More importantly to the Belgian population, and possibly more disturbing, said Smet, Di Rupo is from the French-speaking territory of Belgium called Walloon.
            Belgium is divided into three territories and two major language groups. Approximately 60 percent of the population in Belgium speaks Flemish, a dialect of Dutch, and 40 percent of the population speaks French. Though each of the three regions are united under the Kingdom of Belgium, each region has its own government and own identity.
            Olivier Paye, Professor of Political Science at Facultés Universitaires Saint-Louis, said the best-represented political party in Belgium was actually advocating the separation of Flanders, the northern-most, flemish-speaking region of Belgium, from the rest of the country.
Culture of Acceptance
            Smet said Di Rupo’s sexuality did not affect his appointment whatsoever.
            “When the leader of the biggest party in the country is gay, when the time comes to serve the country, it will be a gay guy who serves it,” Smet said.
             Belgium is ahead of many countries in the world in legalizing certain rights for people in the LGBT community.
            In 2003, Belgium became the second country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. That same year married homosexuals won the right to adopt children. These rights are still denied to homosexuals by many states in the United States.
The Pride Belgium logo
            Verlaine Berger is the head of communication for The Pride, a non-profit organization that organizes an annual LGBT rights event in Brussels.
            She said the cause of the difference in freedoms for people in the LGBT community between Belgium and other countries in the world like the United States could be the result of a difference in priorities.
            “The countries where LGBTs are less accepted are the countries more concerned with tradition, by culture and religion,” Berger said, “I think Belgium, for example, is a country where one is less focused on culture and religion.” 
            Belgium is a predominately catholic country with 60 to 70 percent of the population claiming Catholicism as their religion.
            However, Philippe Cochinaux, a Catholic priest and Ph.D in Theology, said that Catholic representation on Sunday mornings was less than that.
            “Sometimes people might say that they still believe in God, but the practice of the Belgians is between 5 and10 percent every Sunday,” he said.
            Though the church does not recognize same-sex marriage and will not marry a homosexual couple in the Catholic Church, the pastoral perspective on being homosexual is one of acceptance.
             “My view is that we always seek to respect the people,” Cochinaux said, “in the pastoral perspective, to accompany people doesn’t mean you agree with them, but in the name of the gospel you accompany them. I think that is something quite typical in this country.”
            Lionel Lange, 23, is a student in a Liège prep school studying business. He admitted being homosexual to his friends and family when he was 16 years old. Lange said he was insulted and judged by other students in his class when he was younger, but never by adults.
            “I never gave much importance to their nastiness because I knew I had friends, people who accepted me as I was,” he said, “and if people didn’t accept me, too bad for them.”
            Cochinaux said tolerance and compromise are two characteristically Belgian qualities.
            “We are not so much extremist people here. We try to be tolerant, to welcome the people as they are, and it’s a question of politics in a sense that we always try to compromise with the north, as in the Flemish, and the Walloons. So to compromise is a way of life,” he said.
            Lange said he sees no need for the Prime Minister to change the laws in Belgium to promote equal rights for those in the LGBT community because they are already changing little by little. He said the fact that Belgium is able to have a homosexual Prime Minister is a good thing because it means people are not seeing someone’s sexuality as their most important characteristic.
            “We shouldn’t stop at something that is truly secondary,” he said, “the sexuality of someone doesn’t mean that someone is more capable or less capable than someone else.”

Quotes from Olivier Paye, Verlaine Berger and Lionel Lange have been translated from French.

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