|Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio|
3/15/13 by Richard Socarides- The news that Senator Rob Portman of Ohio has become a supporter of equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians because he himself has a gay son was a surprise. That’s because Portman is not only a staunch conservative but also an important member of the Republican Party establishment; he was a key adviser to Mitt Romney during his Presidential campaign, his debate-prep partner, and he was seriously vetted for Vice-President on the G.O.P. ticket. Many people, including myself, predicted that Portman would be the V.P. pick, and some believe that, had Portman been chosen, Romney could have won. Portman, with an interview on CNN and an Op-Ed in the Columbus Dispatch, became the only sitting Republican senator to support marriage equality, as well as the highest-profile conservative currently in government to do so.
Portman told CNN, “I’ve come to the conclusion that for me, personally, I think this is something that we should allow people to do, to get married, and to have the joy and stability of marriage that I’ve had for over twenty-six years. That I want all of my children to have, including our son, who is gay.” It was interesting that Portman chose to use the same modifier, “personally,” that President Obama used when he first announced his own evolution into a gay-marriage supporter, to Robin Roberts, on ABC news. (Obama: “For me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that.”)Portman was candid about the choice to announce his support less than two weeks before the Supreme Court is to hear constitutional challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act, which he voted for as a congressman, and to California’s Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriage in that state. “I thought it was the right time to let folks know where I stand, so there’s no confusion, so I would be clear about it,” he said, suggesting that the pendency and immediacy of those cases mattered to him.
There is another question, though. One can’t help wondering if having a gay son cost Portman a spot on the G.O.P. Presidential ticket. He told reporters that he disclosed the fact to the Romney campaign when he was vetted, and said they told him it was not an issue. He wouldn’t have been the first; Dick Cheney’s daughter Mary is a lesbian. Beth Myers, Mitt Romney’s most trusted aide and the person he tapped to oversee his Vice-Presidential selection process, is a signatory to the Ken Mehlman-inspired amicus brief from Republican Party leaders to the Supreme Court in favor of overturning Proposition 8. That said, Portman was not selected, and Paul Ryan, whose role was, in part, to reassure conservatives that Romney was no moderate, was.
Portman is not a signatory to the amicus brief, nor does it seem likely that he would join at this point. The brief, in its argument against Prop. 8, says that there is a constitutionally based right to marriage equality; Portman stopped well short of that in his announcement, saying, much as President Obama did initially, that marriage is an issue for the states to sort out individually. But in his Op-Ed, Portman gestured toward an emerging conservative position on same-sex marriage—“One way to look at it is that gay couples’ desire to marry doesn’t amount to a threat but rather a tribute to marriage”—and talked about the Biblical value of compassion.
The real example of courage in this story, however, comes from Portman’s son Will, who is twenty-one years old. Will Portman came out to his parents over two years ago. Imagine what it was like to be a Yale freshman (as he was at the time), coming to terms with your sexual orientation and having to come out to your father, one of the most prominent conservative members of the national political party that has historically been identified with opposing the rights of the group to which you now belong. (I remember how it felt to come out as the gay son of a prominent anti-gay psychiatrist.) Then imagine, after sharing this intimate part of yourself with your parents, watching your father be publicly vetted for Vice-President on the ticket of someone whose anti-gay-rights views were being widely reported on. In his Op-Ed, Portman wrote about learning that Will was gay:
He said he’d known for some time, and that his sexual orientation wasn’t something he chose; it was simply a part of who he was. Jane and I were proud of him for his honesty and courage. We were surprised to learn he was gay, but knew he was still the same person he’d always been. The only difference was that now we had a more complete picture of the son we love.
Will Portman proved, once again, that the most powerful political act any gay person can take is coming out. Public-opinion polls show, and have for decades, that people who know a gay person are far less likely to support discrimination. (Portman wrote that he’d “wrestled with how to reconcile my Christian faith with my desire for Will to have the same opportunities to pursue happiness and fulfillment as his brother and sister.”) To have a close relative who is gay or lesbian can only magnify the effect seen in polling. The most prominent example of this is Cheney, who has been a longtime supporter of gay marriage, as is the former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, who also has a lesbian daughter.
It took Senator Portman two years from his son’s revelation to come to a point where he was willing to discuss it comfortably, although Dana Bash, who interviewed him for CNN, says he was in fact quite awkward and nervous. That is forgivable. Everyone is entitled to his or her own journey on this issue. As Portman himself said, “I’ve had a change of heart based upon a personal experience. That’s certainly true.”
Richard Socarides is an attorney, political strategist, writer, and longtime gay-rights advocate. He served as White House Special Assistant and Senior Adviser during the Clinton Administration.
Photograph, of Rob Portman speaking outside of John Boehner’s office, in December, 2012, by Drew Angerer/Getty.