Johanna Sigurdardottir, Iceland’s prime minister, just got married. That in itself might not be particularly noteworthy, except for one thing—she married a woman.
When Johanna was elected in 2009, she became the modern world’s first openly gay head of government. She and her partner have been in a registered same-sex union for years, and when a new law came into effect on Sunday she became the first world leader to enter into a gay marriage.
“In the current climate of U.S. public opinion it is impossible to imagine a U.S. president who is openly gay and who marries their longtime partner,” Peter Tatchell, a spokesman for gay rights group OutRage!, told the AP. Scandinavian countries are more generally comfortable with sexual minorities than much of the rest of the world, including the U.S. Denmark has allowed same-sex unions since 1989, and Sweden has a respected lawmaker who is a frequent cross-dresser. Although we have a black president—and with the national success of politicians like Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, a female president doesn’t seem that far off—it is hard to imagine an openly gay president here, much less one who has married her same-sex partner.
That could and probably will change within a generation, as the more tolerant younger generation becomes the country’s majority. But our national unwillingness to judge someone on the basis of their character rather than their sexual orientation, at least when it comes to the highest office in the land, is telling. And if it is difficult to imagine to imagine a gay president, it is unfortunately probably even harder to imagine a transgender president considering how people reacted to the recent appointment of the country’s first transgender political appointees.
It’s not just a question of sexual orientation either—who we choose to represent us reflects our image of what it means to be American. The president embodies in some way our national ideal. It is almost as hard to imagine an unmarried president—our one single president, Martin Van Buren, was a widower—or an openly atheist president. But as Iceland celebrates the marriage of its prime minister, maybe it’s time to reexamine our prejudices and ask ourselves whether our personal lives or most private beliefs are really what makes us good people or capable leaders.
UPDATE: As a commenter pointed out, James Buchanan was actually a lifelong bachelor. I think it would be harder for an unmarried man to get elected now, however, with candidates’ nuclear family now such a huge party of their image and appeal.