Katherine Zappone, American-Irish independent politician who serves as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs from May 2016 to June 2020, is born in Seattle, Washington, on November 25, 1953. She is a Teachta Dála (TD) for the Dublin South-West constituency from 2016 to 2020. She previously served as a Senator from 2011 to 2016, after being nominated by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny.
Zappone is educated at Boston College (PhD), the Catholic University of America (MA) and University College Dublin (MBA). She becomes an Irish citizen in 1995. She and her wife, Ann Louise Gilligan, found An Cosán which supports individuals and communities to actively engage in the process of social change through transformative education. In Zappone and Gilligan v. Revenue Commissioners (2006), they unsuccessfully seek recognition in the High Court, for their Canadian marriage in Ireland. Zappone is a member of the Irish Human Rights Commission, chief executive of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, and a lecturer in the fields of ethics, theology, and education at Trinity College, Dublin. Though they are already married in Canada, she proposes to Gilligan on air as the positive result in the same-sex marriage referendum becomes known. Gilligan dies in June 2017.
Zappone is nominated by Taoiseach Enda Kenny to the 24th Seanad in 2011, having been recommended by Eamon Gilmore, the then leader of Fine Gael‘s coalition partners, the Labour Party. With her Seanad nomination, she becomes the first openly lesbian member of the Oireachtas and the first member in a recognised same-sex relationship.
Zappone is elected to the Dáil for the Dublin South-West constituency at the 2016 Irish general election, becoming the first openly lesbian TD and, by her own reckoning, the world’s 32nd lesbian to be elected to a national parliament. In May 2016, after a delay in government formation, due to prolonged talks, she becomes Ireland’s first openly lesbian government Minister and the first Minister to have been openly gay at the time of appointment to cabinet, when Taoiseach Enda Kenny appoints her as the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. She loses her seat at the February 2020 Irish general election and continues to serve as a minister until June 2020 on the election of a new government.
Following the loss of her seat at the 2020 Irish general election, Zappone moves back to Seattle to work as a full-time volunteer for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign in the 2020 United States presidential election, then to New York.
In July 2021, it is announced that Zappone is to be appointed to the newly created position of Special Envoy to the UN for Freedom of Opinion and Expression. It subsequently emerges that the proposed appointment had not been flagged in advance of the Cabinet meeting where it was proposed by Minister Simon Coveney, raising the concerns of the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin. However, he does not block the appointment, attracting criticism from within government, the opposition and the public, with Sinn Féin describing the appointment as “cronyism.”
In the following days it is reported that Zappone had lobbied for the creation of and appointment to the part-time position, which was not openly advertised or subject to a competition. Further controversy arises when it is reported that shortly prior to the announcement of her appointment, she had hosted a party for 50 guests, including politicians such as Leo Varadkar, at the Merrion Hotel, while the COVID-19 pandemic in the Republic of Ireland was ongoing. Comparisons are made between the party and the Oireachtas Golf Society scandal from earlier in the pandemic. On August 4, 2021, she announces that she will not take up the envoy role, saying “While I am honoured to have been appointed by the Government to be the Special Envoy on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, it is clear that criticism of the appointment process has impacted the legitimacy of the role itself. It is my conviction that a Special Envoy role can only be of real value to Ireland and to the global community if the appointment is acceptable to all parties.”
In September 2021, Zappone is invited to appear before the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, but chooses not to attend. As a U.S. citizen and resident, the committee has no power to compel her attendance.