Anyone who says that Irish Health Minister Leo Varadkar’s admission that he’s gay doesn’t matter – and there have been thousands of them on social media – has got to be kidding. What Ireland did these people grow up in?

Of course it matters. Have they ever set foot inside one of our secondary schools? Do they know that anti-gay bullying is still an epidemic there?

When Varadkar started secondary school himself it was illegal for consenting gay people to have sex. That’s right, you could be arrested and imprisoned for doing what every other couple in the nation was doing. Did that matter?

At the time there were few gay Irish public figures that a closeted young gay person could point to and say, now that’s an attainable role model for me. Now there is.

Varadkar isn’t just a senior minister. He’s a practical shoo-in for party leader and a potential taoiseach (prime minister) in the making. That’s the highest point on the Irish social and political scale you can climb to. That matters.

Think of it. In 20 years Varadkar has watched being gay go from being illegal and a career killer to being just one more thing that makes him unique, like being half Indian.

Announcing that he was gay at the weekend has done his career no harm, and in fact it may have made his candidacy even stronger. If you want to measure Ireland’s progress on the issue that’s a good place to start.

Varadkar said he took the intensely personal step of coming out to avoid calls of hypocrisy in his public life. Ireland is facing into a referendum in May that will put marriage equality for same sex couples to a national vote, the first time this has happened anywhere in the world.

Whatever you think of his politics, there is no question that by putting his cards on the table, by telling us he is still a second-class citizen in the nation he represents, he did something noble and fine.

You can reach the top tiers of Irish life and politics, Varadkar has shown us, but the law can still treat you and your relationship as lesser than everyone else’s.

If you were prevented from marrying by dint of your neighbors vote it’s likely that you’d have something to say about it. Just the idea that people who don’t know you or your partner or your relationship or your hopes and dreams and could still nevertheless decide whether you’ll have the right to marry would probably enrage you.

Like every other gay person in the country, Varadkar must now depend on the good will of those neighbors in order live with the same dignity that they demand for themselves.

The thing is, history has shown us that you can’t depend on your neighbors good will when your own rights are at stake. We should all be deeply worried about the outcome.

This referendum on same sex marriage is about giving gay people the right to marry and protect their relationships. That’s the most pro-family thing that they could ever ask for. Civil marriage will give them most of the legal rights and protections that heterosexual married couples take for granted.

But already anti-gay groups are attempting to frame the debate, to insist that it’s really about things that it’s not about, because they know what scares you.

“It’s an attack on the family,” some cry. Other’s say it’s an attempt to “make mammies and daddies irrelevant.”

It is no such thing. Seventy percent of Americans now live in states with marriage equality for same sex couples. No heterosexual families have been attacked, no children have been prized from their parent’s arms. We are not living in a Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome dystopia.

What happened here is what will happen there: some gay couples will at long last be granted the legal right to protect each other, and that is all.

God won’t send a host of avenging angels; there won’t be any fire or brimstone. What there will be is very good catering and a terrific after party where you will probably have to dance at least once to a Rihanna song.

Frightened people are easy to manipulate. Irish history in the 19th and 20th centuries is a master class in the manipulation of the scared. The people holding the strings then want to hold them again in the 21st century.

People like you and I – and now Leo Varadkar – are really all that is standing between them and the road back into that cowed past.