Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics (R) and U.S. Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland speak to journalists in Riga on November 20, 2014. (Ilmars Znotins/AFP/Getty Images)

Earlier this month, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics announced that he was gay, breaking a major barrier in eastern Europe’s socially conservative political scene, where openly gay public figures of any sort are extremely rare. The announcement provoked strong reaction in Latvia and its neighbors. Western European leaders congratulated Rinkevics on his courage. Some of Rinkevics’s political allies in Latvia said they would start a public discussion about granting more legal rights to domestic partners, same-sex or otherwise. Other lawmakers said they would try to block any efforts to liberalize those rules.

In Russia, which has passed laws against “gay propaganda,” Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin mocked his Baltic neighbor, saying on Twitter that “if you have nothing else to be proud of, you can be proud of that.”

On Friday, Rinkevics spoke to The Washington Post in one of the few interviews he has granted on the subject. His remarks have been edited for clarity.

The Washington Post: Why did you decide to come out now, and what have you made of the reaction?

Rinkevics: These decisions were building very slowly. It certainly takes time and it takes a lot of reflection. A lot of journalists are asking this, trying to find rational or irrational issues. Basically, after a lot of reflection, after also seeing how some of the discussions here in Latvia were proceeding on partnership issues, and also seeing that there has been quite some progress in understanding issues of gays compared even to 10 years ago, 20 years ago, I thought it would be the right decision not to pretend to answer questions about how is your wife doing or your family doing, but simply to make a public announcement. Probably also it helps many people who had a bit of a different situation. In general I have to say that the reaction has been better than I even expected that Thursday night [November 6]. There have been people who simply put out statements of support, there have been people who certainly made critical remarks, some hysterical remarks, but in general it has been received in a very balanced way. And I think it’s very slowly moving off the agenda and people are concentrated on foreign policy agenda as they should be.

It’s a process, and of course attitudes are changing, changing slowly. Let’s not forget that during the whole Soviet Union years and the first years of independence, there have been highly negative attitudes. Those attitudes cannot change overnight. It’s been an issue not just here in Latvia but also in many countries. Such things really take time, such things really need more openness from people.

In general terms, what I have heard many times is we really don’t care who you are in your private life so long as you do your job properly.

Was your sexual orientation a factor when you decided to go into politics? Did you ever think it would be possible to be an openly gay politician in Latvia?

I didn’t take that into any consideration. Certainly, as the example shows, some people will disapprove based only on this issue. I do think that sometimes the things we think are not possible actually are. But I didn’t have any calculations.

But even 10 years ago in Latvia it would have been difficult to imagine an openly gay cabinet member.

I was not going out in public with a wife. I lead a life I want to live. I do know there have been rumors for many years. I didn’t pay attention,  nobody was making it an issue. I was not making it an issue. People should understand that people can have different lifestyles in any field of their life.

This is being slowly accepted, and I believe that the best thing I can do to promote more understanding and tolerance is simply to work on issues that are related to my job. If people see that if he’s doing his work properly, I think that would probably make them even more understanding, and probably also more open to differences. That’s another issue, that we have to do our best to make our society as inclusive as possible. We have people with different religious beliefs, with sexual orientations, with ethnicities in an open and tolerant society and that’s where we’re slowly moving. You cannot build or rebuild societies after the period we have lived through in a year or two. Of course we want to live in good economic conditions or a democratic society, and we have made a lot of progress, but we still have to continue working.

On what time scale would you expect legal changes to happen?

It’s definitely quite a long process. We do not have majority support in the parliament. That’s one thing you should understand. That’s first. And I’m talking about all kinds of partnerships. We have issues when it comes to hospitals, if your partner is in the hospital, doctors cannot release any information to a partner if that partner is not married. We have an issue when it comes to testifying in criminal court. The code says you can avoid testimony if it’s your close relative who’s being investigated. Those are issues, I’m not even speaking about property issues, wills and so on.

But without a normal debate and discussion, also explaining issues, we cannot simply push legislation that would probably cause a lot of initial discussion and probably very harsh discussion if we are not having an educated debate. It’s not going to be a short-term issue. The second issue that’s confusing to a lot of people, the constitution has a provision that marriage, that it is between a man and a woman. So we are not talking about gay marriages here, we are talking about partnerships and the definition, and not a violation of the constitution. It was amended in 2005. It’s not only same-sex, it’s also many partners who are not living in the institution of marriage but simply together.

We’re not talking here about a timeline of one year or two years. It will be a long time before there is clear understanding.