Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar arrived in Washington this week as part of an annual trip ahead of St. Patrick’s Day. The Irish leader aims to use the meeting to reaffirm the historical ties between Ireland and the United States.
“I think that the relationship between Ireland and the U.S. is long-lasting — it’s strong,” Varadkar told The Washington Post in an interview on Wednesday.
However, some differences between the two nations’ administrations were highlighted Thursday morning, when Varadkar arrived at the Naval Observatory for a breakfast meeting with Vice President Pence — and took along his partner, Matt Barrett.
Varadkar is one of only a handful of openly gay world leaders. Pence, on the other hand, is a socially conservative Christian who has long been criticized by LGBTQ advocates for pursuing policies that they say hurt the gay community while he was governor of Indiana.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, once called Pence “the face of anti-LGBTQ hate in America.”
Pence’s wife, Karen Pence, was recently criticized for accepting a part-time teaching job at a private Christian school in Virginia that seeks to exclude gay and transgender students and staff members. She was not present at the Thursday breakfast.
Speaking at the Naval Observatory, Varadkar touched briefly on his sexual orientation.
“I lived in a country where if I’d tried to be myself at the time, it would have ended up breaking laws,” the Irish prime minister said. “But today, that is all changed. I stand here, leader of my country, flawed and human, but judged by my political actions, and not by my sexual orientation, my skin tone, gender or religious beliefs.”
This is the first time that Pence has hosted the partner of an openly gay world leader at his residence, though that may simply be a reflection of their low numbers. After he met Pence at his home last year, Varadkar told Irish reporters that the two discussed LGBT issues and that the vice president told the Irish leader that his partner would be welcome at his home.
“They were very well briefed,” Varadkar said of his meeting with Pence and his wife. “They knew about my personal story, that my partner was living in Chicago, and they said both Matt and I would be very welcome to visit their home in future.”
Speaking to Ireland’s RTE News on Wednesday, Varadkar confirmed that his partner would attend the traditional breakfast with Pence. “As you can imagine, with everything else going on at the moment, I’ve barely had time to think about that,” Varadkar said, a reference to votes on Britain’s exit from the European Union earlier that day.
Historically Catholic and socially conservative Ireland has become more LGBTQ-friendly in recent years; in 2015, the country became the first in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. Varadkar, who was Ireland’s health minister at the time, publicly announced his sexual orientation in a radio interview earlier that year, describing it as “part of my character, I suppose.”
According to the Irish Independent newspaper, Varadkar and Barrett have been a couple since 2015.
There have been only a handful of openly gay world leaders in modern history; Luxembourg’s Xavier Bettel and Serbia’s Ana Brnabic are among them at present. In 2017, a White House photo caption omitted the name of Bettel’s husband, Gauthier Destenay, in a group photo of spouses of NATO leaders during a summit in Brussels. The caption on the photo was later edited to correct the error.
Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly said this was the first time Vice President Pence had hosted an openly gay world leader at his residence. Thursday morning’s meeting was the first time Pence had hosted the partner of a gay world leader at his home.