Out on the Right On Being Gay, Conservative and Catholic
Jens Spahn is a conservative parliamentarian. He is also gay. In a SPIEGEL interview, the 32-year-old describes how this has informed his political career and assesses how far Germany has come on civil rights for gays and lesbians.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Spahn, two years ago we asked you for the first time if you would be willing to grant us an interview about your life as a gay member of parliament in a conservative political party. What made you hesitate so long?
Spahn: Because my gayness has nothing to do with how I define myself as a politician. I don't focus on gay issues at the expense of other political issues. Instead, as a health expert, I strive to solve today's problems. I wouldn't want my way of living and loving to play a larger role than the substance of my work.
SPIEGEL: What changed your mind about talking with us?
Spahn: I want to send a signal. There are many gays among Germany's conservatives who are discontented with their party. Nevertheless, this will be my first and last interview about my homosexuality.
SPIEGEL: You have been a member of parliament for 10 years. Have you often been asked by colleagues whether you have a female partner in your life?
Spahn: Anyone who asked was given the honest answer that I have a male partner. I've never made a secret of my homosexuality.
SPIEGEL: Did the issue play a role when you first sought your district's nomination to run for a seat in the Bundestag 11 years ago?
Spahn: When it comes to the internal nomination procedures of a political party, people always look for areas where a candidate might be vulnerable. My sexual orientation and my age -- I was only 21 back then -- certainly didn't please everyone at the time. A number of individuals tried to make my homosexuality a topic of debate. I admittedly found that rather upsetting.
SPIEGEL: What kinds of attempts were made?
Spahn: In some cases, party members expressed concern. They asked: "How can we win a strongly Catholic electoral district with someone like him?"
SPIEGEL: At the time, did you ever consider approaching the lectern back then and saying: "I'm gay"?
Spahn: No! It has nothing to do with my politics and my political convictions. Consequently, I didn't want to make a display of it -- especially not in my nomination speech. Today, however, the aforementioned statement wouldn't deter anyone anymore in my home region of Münsterland in western Germany, where gays even receive highly coveted top positions in local carnival and rifle associations.
SPIEGEL: "As long as he doesn't try to touch me, I don't care." That's what Germany's first postwar chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, said in response to the rumor that his Foreign Minister Heinrich von Brentano was gay. Isn't that still the basic attitude of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) -- they formally accept homosexuality, but find it somewhat disconcerting?
Spahn: I have to ask in response, isn't that the attitude of large segments of our society? The conservatives are merely a cross-section of that society. Of course there are still people who have reservations. But I think that a member of the CDU in Münsterland is in a better position to promote tolerance than a Green Party left-wing functionary from the city of Cologne. After all, there's a good chance that no one will even listen to him there.
SPIEGEL: When did you become aware that you're attracted to men?
Spahn: In puberty, at the age of 15 or 16, when I first developed a sense of sexuality. Fortunately I have wonderful parents. I didn't have to do a whole lot of explaining -- mothers have a good instinct for such things. My parents said right away: Everything's fine the way it is. My friends also reacted well. You have to realize, I come from a small town of 3,700, and there was still a high degree of acceptance right from the beginning. That helped me have a relaxed attitude about the issue.
SPIEGEL: In 1995, you joined the CDU's youth organization, the Young Union. At the time, the CDU was even more uptight in its approach to homosexuality than it is today. What led you to join this party?
Spahn: You could also ask: Can a frequent flyer be in the Green Party? (Editor's note: This is a reference to a past scandal involving a top Green Party politician's use of frequent flyer benefits.) Or an independent businessperson be a member of the Social Democrats? I was politically socialized by the conflict over nuclear energy. Back then, the teacher would ask us every Monday why we hadn't attended the anti-nuclear power plant demonstration on Sunday. That triggered a healthy reflex in me. I refused to allow my teacher to dictate what I was supposed to think. Joining the CDU was the right decision -- and I haven't regretted it to this day.
SPIEGEL: Your colleague Volker Beck, an openly gay member of parliament with the Green Party, once said the following about gay politicians: "Anyone who begins his career with the decision to keep this a secret will never be able to live it down." Do you agree?
Spahn: This statement would certainly have been more applicable 20 years ago than it is today. At the time, homosexuality was a big problem for politicians, and I'm grateful to Volker Beck and others for what they have struggled to attain. Germany in 2012 is different than Germany in 1995. Anyone who still feels today that he has to lead a double life because he's gay is driven by a fear that I think is unfounded.
SPIEGEL: When you type your name into Google, the first autocomplete suggestion is "Jens Spahn gay." Does that bother you?
Spahn: No. It's my impression that many young politicians are googled with this term, especially if they are fairly slim. Give it a try! I find it remarkable that this apparently remains so interesting. But I honestly couldn't care less what pops up in association with me on Google.
SPIEGEL: Did you feel grateful to Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, of the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD), when he coined his famous phrase back in 2001: "I'm gay, and it's totally okay"?
Spahn: I followed that very closely as a young man, and I'm grateful for it. The truth of the matter is that being gay is not a political accomplishment in itself. It's not enough to constitute a political platform.
SPIEGEL: Your fellow party member Ole von Beust says that, at least among Germany's conservatives, a gay politician could at most rise to become a state governor.
Spahn: State governor is certainly nothing to be sneered at! But I don't think that there are still limits here. A gay man could presumably also become chancellor.
SPIEGEL: Why did the CDU have difficulties for so long in coming to terms with the issue of homosexuality?
Spahn: As a Christian party, the CDU has never been at the vanguard of social change, and it doesn't have to spearhead such changes, either. Our mission is different. We incorporate various positions and work to promote a broad acceptance.
SPIEGEL: Do you know what your party's chancellor, Angela Merkel, said in 2000 in reaction to the plan to introduce civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, which was put forward by the then-governing coalition of the SPD and the Green Party?
SPIEGEL: She said it was a "sociopolitical aberration."
Spahn: Well, you know ...
SPIEGEL: Sounds strange, doesn't it?
Spahn: That was almost 13 years ago. Since then, our entire society, including the conservatives, has come a long way. And the positive thing is that no other party has made more progress on this issue than the conservatives.
SPIEGEL: You mean that the CDU and gay marriage would be a good match these days?
Spahn: British Prime Minister David Cameron made the following admirable statement: "I don't support gay marriage despite being a conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a conservative." As conservatives, we can only be glad if two people legally take responsibility for each other, in good times and bad. Is there a way of living that's more consistent with traditional values?
SPIEGEL: How does it feel to be in a parliamentary group with colleagues such as Norbert Geis, who sees being gay as a "perversion of sexuality" and says: "The Apostle Paul considers it a sin. I see it the same way"?
Spahn: Of course that irritates me more than when a colleague differs in his opinions on highway construction. But the conservatives also reflect our society on this issue -- and views, such as the ones held by Norbert Geis, can still also be found in Germany. One has to engage in such debates and hang in there. I can't reach these people by turning away and allowing myself to feel insulted.
- Part 1: On Being Gay, Conservative and Catholic
- Part 2: 'I Remain Faithful to My Church'