While gay politicians have become commonplace in the much of the West, commentators said Westerwelle’s sexual orientation could be an issue in regions such as the Middle East and Asia where homosexuality is widely viewed as an abomination.
The leader of the business-friendly Free Democrats dismissed concerns about a clash between diplomacy and his sexuality in an interview earlier this year.
“I am convinced that today one’s private life is no longer an obstacle. Some other countries may have had a problem with the fact that Angela Merkel became the first female chancellor of Germany. Of course she does not wear a veil on the red carpet when she visits certain Arab states,” he told AFP. “The American secretary of state (Hillary Clinton) must also hold talks in countries in which women are systematically oppressed. The decision as to who we send as a government representative rests solely with us Germans based on our political and moral standards.”
Under a front-page headline “His Man Makes Him Strong,” daily Bild on Tuesday called Westerwelle, 47, and his 42-year-old partner, businessman Michael Mronz, “Germany’s top political couple” and splashed photos of the two hugging on election night.
The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung, mourning the election victory of the centre-right, tried to cheer up its readers with an ironic list of its upsides including—at number two—a gay foreign minister.
“It opens up the wonderful speculation whether and how he will be welcomed at state receptions in Saudi Arabia or Syria with his life partner. And whether Michael Mronz, together with (Merkel’s husband) Joachim Sauer, will try to get out of the ‘ladies’ programme’ at summits and state visits.”
Gay rights groups hope Westerwelle will keep a pledge to punish countries with records of persecuting homosexuals. He threatened in a 2008 interview with Stern magazine to cut such states’ development aid. German foreign ministers rarely take their partners on foreign trips but analysts said Westerwelle’s sexuality could nevertheless create delicate situations when he travels abroad.
“If the foreign minister of an important country refused to meet with him, that would obviously be a problem,” Eberhard Sandschneider of the German Council on Foreign Relations said. “Politics is so crazy that you cannot rule anything out but at the end of the day it comes down to weighing national interests and issues that are just distractions will be recognised as just that.”
Cologne’s Stadt-Anzeiger daily noted that potential destinations such as Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania and Iran have strict Muslim sharia law mandating the death penalty for gay males. But it opined a gay German foreign minister could be a modest force for change in certain parts of the world.
The director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Volker Perthes, said when tensions develop with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Singapore or Russia, the local press might try to exploit Westerwelle’s sexuality as an example of “Western decadence” to whip up public outrage.
“But if a country has an interest in diplomatic relations with Germany, it will quickly get past it,” he told AFP.
Constanze Stelzenmüller, senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, noted the German public was broadly tolerant of Westerwelle’s homosexuality.
“Compare it with the way the UK press went after (Peter) Mandelson: that was ghastly and embarrassing,” she said, referring to the senior Labour politician. “During the Cold War, people’s preferences were considered potential security risks—that also went for people who were gay. The fact that these things are out in the open and not much is made of them, I think that makes for a political life that is saner and healthier,” she said.
And in an editorial, daily Der Tagesspiegel hailed Westerwelle’s rise as a “cultural revolution,” saying: “Germany will for another four years be governed by a woman and now by an openly gay man.”