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?

Spahn: No.

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.

'I Remain Faithful to My Church'

SPIEGEL: As a gay man, why do you remain in the Catholic Church? In their eyes, you're a sinner.

Spahn: I'm a devout individual so I remain faithful to my church. And when a man like Berlin Archbishop Cardinal Rainer Woelki says that civil unions for gays embrace values that the Church should recognize, we can see that there is in fact a process underway here.

SPIEGEL: You attended a Catholic high school. What was that like, given that large segments of the Catholic Church see homosexuality as reprehensible?

Spahn: I was even an altar boy, and I've always felt at home in the Church. Catholics are often more laid back than they are given credit for -- presumably because at the back of their minds they realize that, if necessary, they can always confess everything to their local priest.

SPIEGEL: Do you never get upset about your church?

Spahn: Of course. A German bishop recently said that homosexuality is unnatural. That's sheer nonsense, of course. I didn't choose to be gay. It would be more accurate to say that it was determined by nature.

SPIEGEL: This past summer, you and 12 other members of the conservative group in parliament published a paper calling for homosexuals in a civil union to be able to enjoy the same tax benefits as heterosexual married couples. Why couldn't you gain more support among your own party ranks? After all, the conservative parliamentary group has 237 members.

Spahn: The debate on this paper showed that we are not alone. I see tax parity for lesbian and gay couples as a question of values. It has to do with recognizing that two people are making a long-term commitment to each other. Civil unions encompass all responsibilities, such as the obligation to pay alimony in the event of a divorce or unemployment. By the same token, the state can't say that the privileges that the law stipulates for married couples are denied to gay and lesbian couples. In any case, I will continue to advocate this view within the CDU.

SPIEGEL: Katherina Reiche, a fellow member of your conservative parliamentary group, rejected your initiative with the following words: "Our future lies in the hands of families, not in same-sex civil unions." Did you take this as an insult?

Spahn: It was, in any case, a poor choice of words. Of course children are our future. Families need and deserve our full support. The overwhelming majority of gays and lesbians share this opinion. But it's ridiculous to insinuate that the social recognition of homosexual civil unions damages families or the institution of marriage.

SPIEGEL: Would you be in favor of allowing gay couples to adopt children?

Spahn: Let's not ask whether the parents are gay or heterosexual. The important thing is who the best parents are in each individual case. Our sole concern here is the child's well-being.

SPIEGEL: You mean it's better to have devoted gay parents than uncaring heterosexual parents?

Spahn: Precisely.

SPIEGEL: CDU parliamentary floor leader Volker Kauder said that the issue of adoption rights is primarily about "self-fulfillment for gays and lesbians."

Spahn: He also said that politics begins with observing reality -- and the reality is that most gay couples don't want to adopt a child. Those who do, though, are often prepared to devote themselves entirely to their adoptive child. It's really an across-the-board insinuation to say that homosexual couples are only interested in self-fulfillment.

SPIEGEL: Is it quips like the one from Kauder that are responsible for the CDU being perceived in large German cities as a stuffy old gentlemen's party?

Spahn: I don't see it like that.

SPIEGEL: The fact of the matter is that the CDU is no longer governing in any German city with a population of over 1 million.

Spahn: Our problem in the large cities doesn't have to do with the substance of our politics, but rather with establishing an emotional connection. We lack a certain coolness and laid-back attitude. In Berlin I have a second residence in the district of Prenzlauer Berg. When I look around me there, I see people who should actually be conservative voters. There are a great many families there who are highly achievement oriented. There is also a sense of solidarity. For example, people paint the walls of daycare centers and schools together if the city doesn't manage to do it quickly enough. Families are important. At Easter and Christmas, the grandparents from southern Germany come to visit. In rural areas, these people vote for the CDU, whereas in the corresponding urban electoral districts, if things go well, we get 10 percent.

SPIEGEL: Why is that?

S pahn: The interesting thing is that, from an objective perspective, the CDU has transformed significantly. Much has changed sociopolitically with Angela Merkel. But this message isn't really getting through, particularly with young voters. That's worrisome. Back in 1998, we were still the strongest party among young voters. Now, though, we're far from it -- despite the fact that we have a lot to offer young people. I'm fighting for Sunday as a day of rest, for instance, particularly because the pace of life for many young people is determined by their smartphones. And when you take a look at what's important for most young people -- family, commitment, and professional success -- then the CDU actually reflects the spirit of the times. I also think that we should someday venture to form a coalition at the federal level between the conservatives and the Greens -- although the CDU can't allow itself to make too many compromises in such an alliance.

SPIEGEL: Currently, the Greens are ruling out any coalition with the conservatives.

Spahn: That's true. We won't go chasing after the Greens, and we won't form a coalition with a party that's based on left-wing egalitarianism. But, conversely, the Greens have nothing to gain by throwing themselves, for better or worse, into the arms of the SPD.

SPIEGEL: What can the CDU do to make a less provincial impression?

Spahn: The Republican Party lost the US presidential election in part because it was perceived as the party for old, white men. But we are unfortunately not far from such a one-sided perception. We have to better reflect the social reality. We should have more women candidates. It would help if all of us in the Bundestag participated more in life in Berlin. Many parliamentarians are practically competing to see who can live the closest to the Reichstag. In such a situation, all you know of Berlin is what you see during the taxi ride from the airport to the government quarter. We don't necessarily have to put in an appearance at hip techno clubs like Berghain. But a bit more curiosity about the city -- its diversity, galleries and bars -- would definitely be helpful.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Spahn, thank you for this interview.

Interview by Markus Feldenkirchen and René Pfister, translated from the German by Paul Cohen
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