This week, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio became the first sitting Republican senator ever to publicly support marriage equality. He says he had a change of heart after his 21-year-old son Will came out as gay two years ago, an explanation some have praised and others have criticized.
A high-profile Republican who worked with President George W. Bush and was hailed as a potential Vice-Presidential pick for Mitt Romney, Portman once voted for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), for a constitutional amendment to ban marriage equality, and against letting same-sex couples adopt kids in Washington, D.C.
“It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that’s of a dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have — to have a relationship like [wife] Jane and I have had for over 26 years,” Portman told reporters in an interview at his office.
But why now? Gay rights activists everywhere, while praising Portman’s reversal, say there’s a certain arrogance to changing your mind on a matter of civil rights only when it involves a family member. Slate‘s Matthew Yglesias calls it “the politics of narcissism,” that is to say, caring only about those issues that directly affect you rather than considering the welfare of other people including those you do not know.
Regarding Portman’s obviously conservative voting record on economic and social issues, Yglesias writes:
Rob Portman doesn’t have a son with a pre-existing medical condition who’s locked out of the health insurance market. Rob Portman doesn’t have a son engaged in peasant agriculture whose livelihood is likely to be wiped out by climate change. Rob Portman doesn’t have a son who’ll be malnourished if SNAP benefits are cut. So Rob Portman doesn’t care.
His short but powerful piece continues into an outright condemnation of Portman’s problematic reasoning, arguing that politicians will never truly stand up for social change if they wait around for wrongful policies to affect their own families.
What Portman is telling us here is that on this one issue, his previous position was driven by a lack of compassion and empathy. Once he looked at the issue through his son’s eyes, he realized he was wrong. Shouldn’t that lead to some broader soul-searching?…
The great challenge for a senator isn’t to go to Washington and represent the problems of his own family. It’s to try to obtain the intellectual and moral perspective necessary to represent the problems of the people who don’t have direct access to the corridors of power. Senators basically never have poor kids. That’s something members of Congress should think about. Especially members of Congress who know personally that realizing an issue affects their own children changes their thinking.
Yglesias is spot-on in his critique, acknowledging that while everyone appreciates Portman’s support for LGBT people, we can’t help but suspect it’s only a side effect of supporting his own son. I wrote about Portman’s announcement on my Tumblr blog and several people offered this criticism. One reader commented:
If you need to intimately know someone who belongs to a minority group in order to believe in that group’s rights, I don’t have a lot of respect for you (and I wouldn’t vote for you). Better late than never, but some people have got to start learning a little something called compassion.
Another reader pointed out that Portman’s son was already out to him when the senator voted against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), the federal measure that would have banned workplace discrimination against LGBT people nationwide.
Cheeky but accurate, Towleroad asks, “Does Senator Rob Portman still believe businesses should be able to fire his son for being gay?”
Unfortunately absent from the bulk of this debate is Portman’s son Will, who took a huge risk by coming out to his conservative dad and accidentally became one face of the Republican argument for gay rights. Advocate editor Lucas Grindley says the Portman family’s story sends a clear message about the significance of coming out as gay, even in 2013:
For a long time, activists had made campaigns for marriage equality too much about a quest for legal benefits, as if arguing a court case. Research from the Third Way and others has shown that voters relate better to our personal stories. They relate to our desire to stand before family and friends and declare love for another person — and then to have no government tell us the love isn’t real. …
We’d like to think that our culture has come so far that it should no longer matter whether a person is gay. But that’s still fantasy. Coming out matters a lot, especially when you’re related to a U.S. senator.
Yes, it’s unfortunate that Sen. Portman only changed his mind on an issue of civil rights when it became clear that his family’s well-being was at stake. Civil rights should never be left to the whimsy of popular opinion, whether elected or not, and it’s a shame society hasn’t progressed far enough to realize it.
But that doesn’t mean we should understate the power of coming out; as this case proves, it’s one of the most effective tools, if not the most effective, for fighting intolerance, establishing true equality, and embracing acceptance across the board.
“We must continue to speak out and most importantly, every gay person must come out,” Harvey Milk famously said. “As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family, you must tell your relatives, you must tell your friends — if they indeed are your friends — you must tell your neighbors, you must tell the people you work with, you must tell the people in the stores you shop in, and once they realize that we are indeed their children and that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all.”