GOP Senator Supports Marriage Equality After Son Comes Out; What Does That Say About Politics?

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.

Sen. Rob Portman (right) with his son

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.

But after consulting Dick Cheney, who has a lesbian daughter and is a vocal proponent of marriage equality, he knew it was time to change:

“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.”

About Camille Beredjick

Camille is a twentysomething working in the LGBT nonprofit industry. She runs an LGBT news blog at gaywrites.org.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    It’s the usual…

    They’re against LGBT rights… until they realize it adversely affects their own family member.

    They’re against separation of church and state… except for cases when they realize that government privileges for religions could also give those privileges to Muslims, Pagans, Atheists, etc.

    • Friendly_Autist

      And they’re making our laws. Ah, America.

  • coyotenose

    It’s pretty obvious why he waited. He didn’t want to give Obama’s reelection campaign any talking points. He’s slime.

    • Jennifer

      That is a really good point!

    • Amemuslesbia

      Yeah, if he’d openly come out in favor before the election where we had three states vote on marriage equalitly so his showing support would have been timely ..now it’s rather more slimey.

    • Guesty Guest

      Well, this notion verges on the truly childish. But hey, you’ve got plenty of company in your superiority ready to project the absolute worst onto someone who took a positive step forward. Nice work, guys.

      • Aramis

        Oh, so you missed that part where he knew his son was gay during Mittens’ campaign and refused to say anything about it then? It’s hard not to wonder why he didn’t decide to move forward a year ago when he first got word. Actually, one needn’t wonder; he’s openly stated, explicitly and in his outdoor voice, that he chose to voice support for civil rights now because it’s politically expedient to do so. He is indeed complete slime.

        • Guesty Guest

          Spite your new allies because their timing is inconvenient. That is sure to convince others! He can’t be a good person unless he benefits us politically as well as on this issue. I mean, by Jove, he’s still a Republican! (HOW DARE HE!) There sure is something slimy here, and it isn’t him.

          • Peasles

            I don’t think anyone is trying to say that Republicans can’t be good people. Please stop.

  • NewEnglandBob

    What this tells us is no surprise…

    The right wing and Republicans are only for themselves. This has been known for decades. They only care about themselves and other wealthy and/or corporations.

    Otherwise they would be against almost anything else because it doesn’t serve them, but in this case, there is someone related that is affected, so then they all of a sudden change their mind/heart.

    This, as expected from them, is shallow and arrogant, They have no ethics beside being for themselves.

    • Celticpeace

      Please remember the current president who was for gay marriage as a liberal state senator, against it when he was trying to appear more middle of the road, and for it when he needed to energize his base in his re-election. I don’t think the Republicans are alone in owning the “only for themselves” card.

  • http://twitter.com/Ro542124 Gideon

    Seems to me like an old phenomenon: rulers supporting public policy until it starts to affect them or their families. Suddenly CCR’s Fortunate Son is stuck in my head.

    • Thackerie

      Or when they fear a threat of media exposure … which I have been told is the case with Portman.

  • jose

    This isn’t strange. It’s the republican agenda: “more for me and fuck you”. When it affects them personally, they’ll make a turnaround. It’s what Hitchens did with torture, too.

  • pagansister

    I’m just glad it has ticked off his compatriots in the GOP!

  • Celticpeace

    He would have been better served to say his position has “evolved”.

  • fsm

    This kind of Narcissism is not limited to the Republicans. I think most politicians are narcissistic. Bob said they only care about themselves and wealthy corporations. I don’t believe that any care about wealthy corporations only about what the wealthy corporations can do for them. As I always say; why would anyone spend a millions of dollars for a job that pays less than a million? Then how is it they come out of that job much richer? I have not found many federal level politicians that are not out for their own. Most of them are more interested in how politics can enrich their own lives. Let me point out that a few years ago we had several congressmen and senators that switched sides of the isle because they thought they would have a better chance at reelection. This is not the actions of people that are in Washington for their convictions.

    I may be getting cynical but if you find an honest man (woman) in Washington, just give them a couple of years…

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

      yup.

      this is pretty much the reality of leadership today, and party affiliation plays little role in that. the only people that matter to most lawmakers are the ones signing a big check at the end of the tunnel.

      i’m even more cynical and think that Portman was given the go ahead by the slightly less insane consulting class of republican strategists, in order to start building up the next generation of republican brand voters in the 18-40 set, who are increasingly disinterested in having the oppression of gays be a centerpiece of republican party strategy.

      it’s a loser, and the smarter ones know it. Portman gets to be one of the “old guard” who makes it possible for a group of not-anti-gay younger republicans to be elevated. the latter group will still push policy that favors the rich and oppresses the poor, because that is the party brand and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

      • Mario Strada

        I think you are right on the money. No way this happened in a vacuum.

  • Jasper

    It says that the GOP is incapable of putting themselves into anyone else’s shoes unless they’re forced to be.

    • baal

      Which is a big part of why I advocate law makers should have to spend 1 year living on $20,000 (or what ever is the poverty line for a single person).

      • Mario Strada

        Unfortunately, even that wouldn’t be real. They would know that once the year is up, they’d go back to the mansions and fancy cars.
        But yes, it would be nice if they at least did that.

        • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

          It could still make a difference. Barbara Ehrenreich, the woman who wrote “Nickle and Dimed” had (and went back to) a very nice, upper-middle-class life before she wrote the book. She spent a year living on the salary of a entry-level waitress in various places around the country, telling hiring managers she was a recent divorcee with no real job skills. It’s obvious that even though she knew she would go back to her ‘real life’ after she was done, the hardships and indignities of poverty affected her powerfully.

  • http://twitter.com/maxbingman1 Max Bingman

    Perhaps Rob Portman needs to feel that he’s the center of the universe. Because his son has come out, LGBT equality has managed to finally land into his narrow world view. If only he had another son who was among the working poor, he might be for a minimum increase. He would almost pass for a compassionate human being.

    At least he voted to reauthorize VAWA, which is more that can be said for my Senator, Mimbo Rubio.

  • A3Kr0n

    Imagine how different it would be in the Middle East if more lawmakers had their sons and daughters on the front lines.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

    This really isn’t limited to politics. Think of how many religious people are only spurred to question the benevolence of their deity when someone they love gets sick or dies. They didn’t mind when their god killed thousands of children in this earthquake or that tsunami, but when little Kaylee is diagnosed with cancer, suddenly it occurs to them to question the status quo.

  • Good and Godless

    While not rejecting is gay son is commendable his rejection of republicanism is underwhelming.

    He should resign for not representing the interests of his constituents and refund all prior earnings and political donations times seven.

    Then dedicate his life to undoing all the social damage his lifetime of misguidedness unleashed.

  • Sokratez

    Nice. A politician actually has the guts to stand up and say “I was wrong” and he gets attack by both sides for doing it. No wonder our politicians never give any ground, we punish them for it.

    • http://twitter.com/JasonOfTerra PhiloKGB

      Absolutely. Now all we have to do is wait until a majority of Republican politicians have gay children who come out so that they, too, can have “guts.”

    • Guesty Guest

      +1. The petty ressentiment that has accompanied people’s cheap denigration of this guy’s hard-won conversion to the side of the good guys is nauseating. When was the last time they reexamined their core social beliefs? Or are they already perfect?

      • Baby_Raptor

        My “core social beliefs” don’t require me to be put into a bad situation before I can have empathy for people. Nor do they require me to discriminate until suddenly I’m the one being targeted, and only then can I have the intelligence to think a position through to the end.

        So, yeah. I’m okay with saying I’m better than these people.

        • Guesty Guest

          Then you are deluded, which is a dangerous state to be in if you are actually interested in becoming a better person. Or are you claiming you overflow with empathy for the religious but you just hide it, like, really really well? I’m gonna go with no, since you explicitly claim to be better than them.

          • Aramis

            How is Baby_Raptor deluded? What s/he said made perfect sense. Nice ad hom attack, but what exactly is the point you’re trying to make here?

            • Guesty Guest

              Step one, learn definition of “ad hom”. Step two, be allowed back on the Internet. There is no underpants gnomes profit-making step, here, for you. This is remedial.

              • Aramis

                My my. Another personal attack! It’s almost like you have no idea what you’re talking about so you have to insult people rather than engage them. Good work!

    • Aramis

      You’re certainly a trusting sort, aren’t you? What Portman did didn’t require any guts at all. He’s flat-out said that he did what he did because it wasn’t politically dangerous anymore to be in favor of civil rights. He knew a solid year ago that his son was gay, but it was only this year that he suddenly found his conscience hiding in the sock drawer.

      And that still leaves us with the rather uncomfortable knowledge that it took a gay son for Portman to do the right thing. I wonder what other positions he holds purely because he hasn’t experienced them personally? Who else he might target with his Republican/evangelical beliefs until someone he loves lands in the sights? A politician is meant to represent all of his constituents, not just the ones like him.

  • LesterBallard

    It says that I’m not all that impressed. We have to be directly affected before we see what’s right. Drone strikes for everyone!

  • http://truth-tables.com James Hotelling

    Honestly, I have a slightly more banal view of this whole incident.
    Yes, his son came out, and yes, he subsequently supported same-sex
    marriage, a reversal of his previous support for bans on same-sex marriage. But he’s a conservative senator from Ohio. If he had stood up and supported gay rights eight or ten years ago, it probably would have worked against him being re-elected; in 2004, Ohio voters supported a ban on marriage equality with 62% of the vote.
    But in the last 3 years, something like six Ohio cities have established “domestic partnership registries”. The tide is shifting in Ohio, and having a gay son gives Rob Portman a hook to shift with it, to the benefit of his own political career.

  • slaq

    They’ll always be against abortion though, because it will simply never affect them. Rich people can afford to have more children. And if they really don’t want another, it’s not like they’ll ever be in a position where they can’t get one; they’re rich! They don’t understand the horror at the thought of being pregnant when you don’t want to be, and having no other option than to have the baby that will then be rased in poverty, or to get an unsafe, possibly deadly illegal abortion. And they never will.

  • Achron Timeless

    I will give him one small amount of credit, and this small amount only: at least he didn’t disown his son like so many others, especially politicians, would have done in his exact same situation.

    Aside from that, as pretty much all the other comments echo, it’s utterly pathetic that it takes your own child confronting you in order to realize that gay people are still people.

    • Aramis

      I don’t give him credit for that at all. Ten years ago a politician could get away with disowning a gay child, but now there are several high-level politicians who have come out in support of gay family members without it being a poison pill. And Michele Bachmann, once a Republican favorite, is seen as despicable by many for how she’s treated a gay family member. His move might be humane and affirming, and that’s nice and all, but in the end he’s still a political lizard, and one thing a lizard knows is where the warm spot is.

  • AmemusLesbia

    Meanwhile , Michelle Bachmann is an still a dirtbag to her gay sister so it’s not even like the GOP is close to human decency when it’s personal.for them.

    • Aramis

      IOKIYR. It’s not just an acronym, it’s a way of life.

  • SeekerLancer

    It says a lot about the Republican mindset, where they can’t relate to another person’s problems until it suddenly effects them.

  • mommamayi

    Progress is progress.

  • Friendly_Autist

    It tells us that gay people are being persecuted for being different than most of the people in power.

  • ~SoACTing

    Long time reader, first time commentor. While I can’t help but agree with most of the negative sentiments here – especially as one who identifies as gay – I almost kind of feel for the guy after reading some of the ridiculous vitriol from the Christian right.

    http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/03/15/republican-senator-endorses-gay-marriage-after-his-son-comes-out/

    Starting with the newest comment: “His son is ‘happy’ now but lost for eternity – and with his father’s approval. Truly sad.”

    I know it took slightly longer than one year for my best friend to change his stance on gay marriage after intense argument, debate, research, etc; that was after knowing me for four years and knowing his sister was gay for ten years.

  • boiler_room

    maybe it’s a selfish thing and yes it took his son coming out but in the end, he did really care? like this guy all his life had this idea that homosexuality is wrong and suddenly his world is upside down so he has to reconsider. yeah it wasn’t for the right reasons but come on, people learn always and always grow up.

    this guy changes to agree with you and you consider him an hypocrite? come on.


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