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Bend it like Bettel: why little liberal Luxembourg leads the way

It’s been a privilege to be part of America’s ever-growing Embrace magazine the past couple of years. As International Editor I’ve been able to tackle a host of resonant subjects dear to me, from pertinence in Poland to Codebreakers at Bletchley, Myanmar to Midlands Madness and even The Dame Bowie in drag. 

This recent article I penned for their appropriately-titled Luxe issue focuses on the fight for liberation across Europe, at a time when those in the east seek to impose a new iron curtain of illiberalism.

Already a champion of LGBT+ liberation, the nation of Luxembourg leads the European liberal front with its consecutive two-term elected openly gay Prime Minister, Xavier Bettel.

He’s the first head of government in the European Union to get married to a same-sex partner while in office, as Steve Pafford reports.

Luxembourg: heard of it? One of the world’s smallest countries, the officially titled Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is a landlocked state in Western Europe bordered by Belgium to the north, Germany to the east, and France to the south.

You may only know of it as a banking dominated tax haven, but Luxembourg is one of the most liberal territories in Europe. The Grand Duchy is generally speaking, one of the most gay friendly countries in the world, ranking third in the European Union for LGBT rights protections.

Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and “change of sex” is outlawed when it comes in employment, healthcare and the provision of goods. Since 2019, transgender people are allowed to change their legal gender on the basis of self-determination.

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Having visited Luxembourg several times now what I can say is this, there might be only one gay bar in the whole country but it is definitely a very gay-friendly country. You see same-sex couples comfortably walking around hand in hand and being affectionate, which is not always a given in every country in the world.

Most notably, in 2013 Xavier Bettel became the world’s third out gay head of government, and in 2018 became the first to be re-elected for a second term, when his mandate was overwhelmingly renewed.

Across Europe, leaders like Betel joined distinguished prime ministers such as Iceland’s trailblazing Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir in 2009, Belgium’s Elio Di Rupo in 2011 and Ireland’s recent Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar — chosen to lead the Emerald republic in 2017 — in offering an important pathway, and at a crucial time when certain Eastern European former Soviet states such as Hungary, Poland and Belarus seem hellbent on dictating an illiberal Trump-esque version of democracy (and I use that word extremely lightly). 

Bettel has stated that increasingly in Luxembourg “people do not consider the fact of whether someone is gay or not.” In the 21st Century it’s simply a non-issue.

In 2015, Bettel also made history as the first head of government in the European Union to get married to a same-sex partner while in office. In the same year that the Chamber of Deputies passed by an overwhelming majority a law enabling same-sex marriage and adoption rights, the PM, then aged 42, wed his long-term partner, the Belgian architect Gauthier Destenay at a private ceremony in the country’s charming capital, Luxembourg City, saying he hoped “everyone in the world could be as happy as he was” that day. 

Unofficially dubbed Luxembourg’s “First Gentleman”, Destenay gained attention on social media when he appeared as the only male spouse in a photo op group portrait of world leaders’ spouses and partners at a 2017 NATO summit.

As if to hammer home how the United States of America seemed intent on walking the path of one step forward two steps back not that long ago, Destenay’s name was omitted from the caption of a Facebook photo posted by the White House, even though all the other female spouses such as Emine Erdogan (Turkey) and French First Lady Brigitte Macron were correctly labeled. Eventually, the post was subsequently edited after it led to a storm of criticism and accusations of homophobia. 

I’m loath to use the term power couple, but the pair are certainly setting a few examples. That same year the pair were invited to the Vatican to meet with the Pope, which commentators deduced sent a “powerful message” on Pope Francis’s position on gay rights. 

Let’s hear it for the boy, because Bettel also announced that he won’t go to any national or international events if Destenay isn’t invited.

Two years later, Bettel won further praise after he told Arab leaders he was gay and could be condemned to death in some of their countries. The PM told Arab attendees at a summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt that he was “married to a man” and would face capital punishment in many of their stuck in the dark ages Middle Eastern countries.

There was “an icy silence from some, a silent joy for others,” according to the account from a German journalist present.

Responding to the story, Bettel later tweeted: “Saying nothing was not an option for me.”

“Man of honour. Thank you, Xavier Bettel,” tweeted German European Affairs Minister Michael Roth.

Slowly but surely the times they are a-changing.

Steve Pafford is an English journalist, actor and author of the acclaimed book BowieStyle. Having trained from the floor up in UK music titles Q, MOJO and Record Collector, he’s had his work featured in a wide variety of British, American and Australian media including the BBC, CNN, The Independent and the New York Times. Steve divides his time between Australia and the south of France.

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