Germany's health minister is trying to convince older conservatives to look past his sexuality
By Enrique Anarte
BERLIN, Nov 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Germany turned Angela 'Mutti' Merkel into the world's most powerful woman when it elected her as leader - is it now ready to pick a gay right-winger to try and fill her shoes?
Jens Spahn will soon find out.
In his attempt to become leader of Germany's governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the health minister faces a battle to convince party members that his often trenchant political views chime with the country's future.
Yet as an openly gay man, he faces an additional challenge his rivals Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Friedrich Merz do not.
Political commentators point to lingering homophobia in a country that only legalised same-sex marriage last year.
"I don't think that this conservative party is ready to put forward an openly gay chancellor or party chair," Helmut Metzner, a member of the board of LSVD, Germany's largest federal LGBT+ organisation, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Spahn, 38, declared his intention to run for the leadership of the CDU following Merkel's announcement that she would step down in December and not seek re-election as chancellor in 2021.
Ahead of a leadership vote on Dec 7, he paints himself as a man of values, sceptical of urban liberals and the global elite.
Yet when it comes to home life, he is very much an outsider for many of the traditionalist voters he courts.
He married his longtime partner in December 2017, months after same-sex marriage was sanctioned by the German parliament.
Spahn's disclosure of his homosexuality makes some party old timers uncomfortable. However, younger members say Spahn's sexual orientation is not a issue, and they value him for promoting conservative values and challenging Merkel.
A spokeswoman for the health ministry said Spahn was unavailable for comment.
FAR RIGHT AND TOLERANT?
Despite growing concerns about the rise of the far right in German politics, the country is largely tolerant towards gay and trans people. Berlin was known as a European centre for LGBT+ nightlife long before the country reunified in 1990.
A 2013 study by the U.S. think-tank Pew Research Center, revealed that 87 percent of German respondents believed homosexuality should be accepted by society.
LGBT+ people are also prominent within German politics.
Alice Weidel, a former Goldman Sachs banker who leads the parliamentary section of AfD, Germany's far-right party, lives with her female partner with whom she has two children.
Questions remain, however, whether Spahn's sexuality – as well as his actual politics – could hamper his chances.
Despite the country's liberal attitude towards homosexuality, Germany languishes at 12th in campaign group ILGA-Europe's annual rank of LGBT+ protection.
The country is ranked behind smaller nations such as Malta and Portugal and other big powers, be it Britain or France.
"Several CDU people that have told me openly that if Spahn became leader of the party they would leave, either because he's reactionary, or because they feel a Christian party can't have a gay leader," said German political commentator Alan Posener.
Spahn's support for law and order policies, such as a cap on the number of asylum seekers, will also play a part in the upcoming party election, commentators said.
"His role model, he has said it often, is Sebastian Kurz," said Posener, referring to the Austrian prime minister who governs in a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party.
Yet the appointment of an openly gay chancellor would send a message of tolerance, Thorsten Benner, director of a Berlin-based think tank, the Global Public Policy Institute, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"(Spahn) is not a warrior of gay rights, but having him as a party leader or maybe as a chancellor would send a signal; the same way that having a female chancellor did," Benner said.
Indeed, many within the CDU disputed the notion that Spahn's sexuality would be an issue. "Not any more," said Alexander Vogt, head of the LGBT+ section of the party.
A recent poll for Germany's Bild newspaper put support for Merz at 38 percent, Kramp-Karrenbauer 27 percent and 13 percent for Spahn. (Reporting by Enrique Anarte; Editing by Hugo Greenhalgh and Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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