Germany is getting a new foreign minister. Cabinet officials come and go in Europe's democracies, but this is different: Guido Westerwelle, the leader of the German Free Democratic Party, will become the first openly gay foreign minister in the world. The prevalence of openly gay politicians in Europe is hardly big news: Iceland's prime minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, is the world's first openly gay head of state; the mayors of Paris and Berlin are also out of the closet. And yes, it's a milestone that this could occur in Germany, a nation that only 70 years ago attempted to exterminate homosexuals. But the truly significant thing about Westerwelle's new job is not what it means for Europe's economic powerhouse—already a country very tolerant of gays—but what it means for the rest of the world.
Westerwelle is about to become the face that Germany presents overseas—which might be a problem for the nations where the denial of homosexuality and the imprisonment, torture, and murder of gay people are official state policies. That's why, after he takes the helm of the Foreign Ministry, Westerwelle ought to kick off his tenure with a tour of the world's most homophobic nations, speaking about the horrific ways in which these regimes treat their gay citizens. Unfortunately, he might be on the road for a while.
Westerwelle could begin his journey in Iran, which depends heavily on Germany as its No. 1 European trading partner. In his infamous address two years ago at Columbia University, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denied the very existence of homosexuality in his country—an absurd claim. Three years ago, the case of two Iranian teenagers hanged for homosexuality drew worldwide condemnation.
After Iran, it'd be on to nearby Saudi Arabia, which, despite a burgeoning gay underworld, beheads gay people. Then he could fly down to Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe refers to gays as "perverts" who are "lower than dogs and pigs." It was probably inevitable that a crude strongman like Hugo Chávez would turn to prejudices like anti-Semitism and homophobia in order to find scapegoats for his ruinous policies; who better than Westerwelle—as the foreign minister of a country that overcame its own murderous encounters with these two hatreds—to confront Chávez about targeting such vulnerable populations? How could these assorted dictators respond to the foreign minister from the fourth-biggest economy with anything other than bluster?
While it's unfortunately true that many homophobic regimes channel popular homophobic opinion in their countries, it's also true that individuals are more likely to support equal rights for homosexuals if they interact with them. For the vast majority of the people in nations Westerwelle visits, he will be just a distant figure, someone whose face they will see on the front page of newspapers and on television. But his being in the room during high-level talks with the likes of Ahmadinejad and Vladimir Putin may alter their attitudes about homosexuality, if only a little.
Even if Westerwelle were not to make an issue of his own homosexuality, recognition of it would be inevitable—especially in countries where homosexuality is viewed as a foreign, specifically "Western" export. The prospect of an openly gay person in a prominent public position is unfathomable in many societies, and the interest in Westerwelle would be almost voyeuristic. That he leads a perfectly normal domestic life alongside a long-term partner—with whom he could travel, forcing foreign governments to provide diplomatic protection and ceremonial recognition to a same-sex couple or lose out on state visits—would dispel many of the bigoted notions that so many people hold about homosexuality.
Still, in some places it would be strange for Westerwelle not to talk about his oppressed gay brethren, just as three female secretaries of state in the last decade made women's rights a major feature of their tours. Hillary Clinton and her predecessors Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice have given great rhetorical and symbolic force to the cause of female equality during their tenures. A major part of this advocacy is unspoken; by their very presence on the world stage as representatives of the most powerful nation on earth, these top female diplomats have lent credence to the notion that women not only are deserving of the same opportunities as men but are just as capable of executing high-powered, high-pressure jobs. We can hope that people around the world will draw similar conclusions about gays in part due to Westerwelle's visibility.
The German government is unlikely to send out Westerwelle on a name-and-shame tour. Germany has yet to solve more pressing problems like the Iranian nuclear threat, for instance (it has repeatedly balked at the prospect of levying stringent sanctions on one of its major trading partners). So the likelihood of its government risking good relations with a variety of countries—no matter how atrocious their human-rights records—over the welfare of gays is slim to none. But here's hoping that, in traversing the globe, Guido Westerwelle will help put a dent in every nation's closet door.
Kirchick is an assistant editor of The New Republic and a contributing writer to The Advocate.