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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 9, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 49
Gay man becomes prime minister of Belgium
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Gay man becomes prime minister of Belgium

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Elio Di Rupo became the European Union's first openly Gay head of government when he was sworn in as prime minister of Belgium on December 6.

Di Rupo will also be the first French-speaking prime minister of Belgium in 32 years.

Belgium has been without a prime minister and a functioning national government for more than 18 months. No party won a majority in parliament in elections in June 2010, and no combination of parties had been able to assemble a workable coalition until Di Rupo put together a six-party agreement.

'My first words are for the citizens,' Di Rupo said in a statement setting out the new government's program.

'I want to thank them for their patience. ... Together, we need to roll up our sleeves and get this country out of crisis.'

Di Rupo is head of the French-speaking Socialist Party of Belgium and mayor of the southern city of Mons. As prime minister, he will face many serious challenges.

Belgium is heavily indebted to European banks, although less so than Greece or Italy. The coalition agreement he mediated includes an agreement on major economic changes to satisfy Belgium's European creditors, including cuts in public-sector spending and new taxes.

By agreement with the E.U., he will have to cut spending to get a balanced budget by 2015 without alienating his party's core support in the labor unions.

Di Rupo's coalition does not include the New Flemish Alliance, a right-wing Flemish nationalist party which brought in the most votes in the June 2010 elections.

Di Rupo is from Belgium's southern, French-speaking region of Wallonia. His Dutch is so limited that it has become a national joke.

Flemish separatist leader Bart De Wever, who was excluded from Di Rupo's coalition, remarked 'My Nigerian cleaning lady, who has been in Belgium for two years, speaks better Dutch than Elio.'

Some 40% of Belgium's people speak French and 60% - the Flemings - speak Dutch.

Flanders is more prosperous than Wallonia, and many Flemings believe the Walloons are a drag on the national economy. As a French-speaker and an opponent of the Flemish nationalist party, Di Rupo faces cultural as well as political challenges.

Di Rupo was born in 1951 to poor Italian immigrants. His father died in a car crash when Di Rupo was only a year old, leaving his illiterate mother with seven children.

'Even so,' Di Rupo remembered in a 2008 interview, 'I cannot say I had an unhappy childhood, With nothing, she gave us happiness. On celebration days, she would buy sandwiches that she cut in two.'

Di Rupo studied chemistry at the University of Mons-Hainaut and at Leeds in England - his mother, he remembered, would go to church and light a candle every time he had an exam.

Although raised Roman Catholic, he described himself in a 2008 interview as an 'atheist, rationalist, and Freemason.'

As a student in Mons, he had become active in the Socialist Party and his political career took off in the city, where he rose to become a member of parliament and mayor.

One of his achievements in Mons was to set up an international erotic film festival in 1984, an annual event held, appropriately enough, in February to coincide with Valentine's Day.

Di Rupo came out in 1996. He had been falsely accused of having sex with underage boys, and as a pack of reporters chased him down the street one shouted out, 'They say you're Gay!'

'Yeah,' Di Rupo said matter-of-factly, 'so what?'

'For several seconds there was silence,' Di Grupo later told his biographer Francis Van de Woestyne. 'People were so surprised by my reply they stopped jostling each other. It was a sincere, truthful reply.'

Openly Gay political leaders are still somewhat rare in Europe.

Johanna Sigurdadottir became prime minister of Iceland, not an E.U. member, in 2009. Nichi Vendola was widely touted in 2010 as a possible successor to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, but failed to put together enough votes to depose him. Guido Westerwelle is currently foreign minister of Germany, and served as Angela Merkel's vice chancellor from 2009 till this year.

Manuel Azana was perhaps the pioneer European Gay leader. He was president of the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939, after having served as prime minister from 1931 to 1933 and again in 1936.

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