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Rob Portman And How To Get Other GOP Lawmakers To Come Around On Gay Rights

Forget the appeal to basic human rights or equality under the law. If we are going to vanquish discrimination against homosexuals in this country, we apparently need to insinuate a gay son or lesbian daughter into the households of the 535 voting members of the U.S. Congress.

Gay people will not have standing to demand full equality in this culture until all of our elected officials see legal bias as a personal affront to their own child’s pursuit of happiness. Somehow, I don’t think this is what the women’s movement meant when it taught us “the personal is political” more than 40 years ago.

By all means we should cheer the late arrival of another passenger on the fast-moving train toward marriage equality, but let’s temper the applause for Sen. Rob Portman, shall we? We have set the bar mighty low if we call it political courage when a conservative senator postpones the public embrace of his gay son until election results and national polls confirm that the country is moving inexorably toward the acceptance of gay marriage.

Gay people will not have standing to demand full equality in this culture until all of our elected officials see legal bias as a personal affront to their own child’s pursuit of happiness.

It has been two years since Portman learned that his now 21-year-old son, Will, is gay. But it was not until last Friday that the Ohio Republican publicly reversed his longstanding opposition to gay marriage. Everyone is entitled to “evolve” at his own pace on this often-personally-unsettling journey; President Obama certainly arrived onboard later than most expected he would. But it is worth noting how the Ohio senator spent those two years after his son’s coming out.

Portman showed no signs of evolving; instead, he campaigned tirelessly for Mitt Romney, a Republican presidential candidate whose position on gay marriage in 2012 included opposition to civil unions as well as to marriage.

Portman had been mentioned prominently as a likely running mate for the former Massachusetts governor. He said on Friday that he had informed the Romney campaign of his son’s sexual orientation and Beth Meyers, who supervised the vice presidential search, insisted it played no role in the decision to reject him. That is hard to imagine, given how relentlessly Romney was pandering to his right-wing base.

“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 26 years,” Portman said. “That I want all of my children to have, including our son, who is gay.”

We conservatives believe in personal liberty and minimal government interference in people’s lives. We also consider the family unit to be the fundamental building block of society. We should encourage people to make long-term commitments to each other and build families, so as to foster strong, stable communities and promote personal responsibility.

Rob Portman, in an op-ed in the Columbus Dispatch

His turnaround comes on the eve of arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in two cases challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, the law he co-sponsored in 1996 that defines marriage exclusively as the union of a man and a woman. His conversion follows the decision by dozens of prominent Republicans to align themselves with those fighting to overturn DOMA.

“At the time, my position on marriage for same-sex couples was rooted in my faith tradition that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman,” Portman wrote in a column in The Columbus Dispatch of that 1996 vote. “Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective.”

One can only hope that this personal experience broadens Portman’s perspective on other issues, as well. In his column, he noted that supporting gay marriage is perfectly consistent with Republican small government values. “We conservatives believe in personal liberty and minimal government interference in people’s lives,” he wrote.

Maybe Portman will call another press conference this week to remind GOP lawmakers of those values in North Dakota and Arkansas where Republican-controlled legislatures just enacted state laws imposing Draconian and clearly unconstitutional restrictions on a woman’s access to abortion?

Or maybe we will have to wait for enough of the lawmakers’ teenage daughters to confront an unwanted pregnancy to see if that will prompt them “to consider the issue from another perspective”?


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This program aired on March 18, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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