Yesterday, Guido Westerwelle, former head of the liberal party FDP and German foreign minister in the second Merkel cabinet from 2009 to 2013, died aged only 54. Westerwelle was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2014, but was until recently believed to be recovering.
I did not necessarily agree with Mr. Westerwelle’s politics, though I always liked him as a person and did not agree with the ridicule heaped on him for his sometimes unorthodox campaigns and ideas. But there was one thing I always admired about Guido Westerwelle and that is that he was one of the first openly gay politicians in Germany and the first openly gay cabinet minister. And he wasn’t just a second and third rate cabinet minister, but our foreign secretary and Germany’s representative in the world.
A lot of people – even people I wouldn’t classify as outrightly homophobic otherwise – had issues with being represented by a gay man in the world. However, I always loved the idea that every foreign dignitary who came to visit Germany – no matter from what homophobic and backwards country they originated – would have to shake the hands of not one, but two gay men – Guido Westerwelle and former mayor of Berlin Klaus Wowereit (who, at least as far as I remember, was the first big name German politician to come out as gay, a few years before Guido Westerwelle). And they couldn’t even refuse, because to do so would be impolite.
I loved the idea that Guido Westerwelle took his husband Michael Mronz along for state visits just like a heterosexual male politician would take his wife and that he ignored any sly “Well, maybe you should leave him at home, cause some things are just not done” advice. It always made me smile to see Michael Mronz – sometimes together with Angela Merkel’s husband Joachim Sauer – touring touristic sights with all the political wives. Because this sent a big signal to all the bigots, both in Germany and abroad, that LGBT relatioships are normal, as normal as heterosexual couples.
Given the current political climate in Germany, it is also worth remembering that Angela Merkel’s second cabinet from 2009 to 2013 was the most diverse in German history with a woman chancellor (and several women as ministers), a wheelchair user as secretary of finance (Wolfgang Schäuble), a gay men as foreign secretary (Guido Westerwelle) and a man of colour (Philipp Rösler, who was born in Vietnam and later adopted by a German couple) first as the secretary of health and later as secretary of economics. There was also a cabinet minister who was strongly believed to be lesbian, but since she never came out publicly, we shall respect her privacy. What makes this diverse cabinet even more remarkable is that is was not the cabinet of a leftwing government, but of a conservative-liberal, i.e. center-right coalition.
Because Guido Westerwelle’s party FDP is liberal in the European sense, i.e. pro-business and pro-low-taxes, but socially liberal, i.e. closer to what Americans call “libertarian” and not “liberal” as a synonym for “left”, as many Americans tend to use it (which I’ve never gotten – honestly, folks, words have meanings and “liberal” does not mean “left”).
The fact that a conservative-liberal government just happened to have the most diverse cabinet in German history and that this was mostly no big deal except for a few grumbling bigots also shows how much the country has changed for the better. This is important to remember, especially now that a xenophobic party of rightwing bigots (the AfD and no, I’m not using cutesy euphemisms like “national-conservative”, cause bigots is what they are) is gaining voters, particularly but not limited to East Germany.
A lot of commentators blame the rise of the AfD in certain benighted demographics on Angela Merkel who has allegedly moved the conservative party CDU too far to the left and thus alienated conservatives. This always infuriates me, because IMO the great victory of Angela Merkel is that she turned the CDU into a party – and I never thought I would ever say this – that you can vote for without feeling bad about it. Angela Merkel quietly got rid of the xenophobic and racist elements in her party, the ones who hated anything that wasn’t straight, white, German and petit-bourgeois. And the conservative-liberal coalition of the second Merkel government and its diverse cabinet were a beacon in that regard, a beacon that centre-right no longer came part and parcel with ugly bigotry, but that a centre-right government could still be the most diverse in German history and have women, LGBT people, people of colour and disabled people and make absolutely no big deal of it.
The second Merkel government was a big fat signal to the jerks who now support the AfD that their straight, white, bio-German, Christian and petit-bourgeois country is a thing of the past, no matter how much they might want to cling to it. Guido Westerwelle was a big part of that and that’s reason enough to mourn him, whether you agreed with his politics or not.