Ari Ezra Waldman | Gay Marriage | News | Rob Portman

Why We Welcome Rob Portman


Sen_portmanRob Portman is a deeply conservative man, a religious man, a "family man," as they say. After his now 21-year-old son came out as gay, it took Senator Portman (R-OH) two years and several conversations with religious leaders and numerous personal consultations with the Bible to finally do some coming out himself: as the first Republican senator to support the freedom to marry.

None of that really matters. In fact, focusing on the negatives -- how long it took him, the fact that he needed to be personally invested before supporting gay equality, and that he seems to have needed more persuading beyond the mere fact of his son's sexuality -- misses the point. 

What Rob Portman did was neither heroic nor brave, but that doesn't mean we should manifest whatever latent bitterness we have about being a discriminated minority by thinking him selfish or without sympathy. We should welcome him with open arms, thank his son for his bravery, and rededicate ourselves to creating a world in which the Will Portmans of the world feel comfortable coming out. 

The reflection and evolution that changed the Portman family are the same changes and evolutions going on in countless families across the world right now, as more bright young men and women come out and live open lives. Only our most vocal and strident opponents are haters; most mothers and fathers just can't relate. They see one man's attraction to another man as more weird and different than disgusting and diseased. But, as soon as they learn that their child or their friend is gay, they put a human face to the phenomenon and suddenly, being gay doesn't seem so strange.

And, that's really what's going on here: learning. Every coming out, whether on the cover of People or sitting by your mother's bed one night shortly after your 21st birthday (how I came out), is a moment of great learning. It is a moment that lifts a great weight from a burdened soul and begins to fill a gaping hole in the life experiences of another. It is both an end and a beginning: For us, it is often the end of a life lived as a lie; but for most of our parents, it is just the beginning of a journey. It is a journey we can neither deny them nor rush for them. We can only support them and teach them along the way.

Harvey Milk said it best. "Most importantly, ... every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family, you must tell your relatives, you must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends, you must tell your neighbors, you must tell the people you work with, you must tell the people at the stores you shop in. And, once they realize we are indeed their children and we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all. And, once you do, you will feel so much better."

2_portmanSocial scientists call this the contact theory, or the idea that interpersonal contact is the best way to improve relations between two otherwise hostile or distant groups. Because our sexual orientations are not superficially obvious and yet are no less deeply held than our races or genders, the success of the contact theory for bridging a divide between gays and heterosexuals requires a necessary first step of telling the world we're gay.

Then the journey can begin.

I remember telling my mother toward the end of our conversation the night I came out to her that I knew this might be hard and that there was no need to respond. Unlike her, I had been dealing with my sexuality for years; she only had 30 minutes. I told her to take some time, think about it, ask me any question she had (her first was adorable: "Do you have a special friend?"), and that I would drop everything at anytime to talk with her about it. Her journey was just starting, but for the first time, it was a journey neither she nor I had to go on alone.

Some of us have parents who knew we were gay all along or take the baton of our coming out and run with it to the next gay pride march or the next freedom to marry rally. A few of us sadly have parents who beat us or reject us. But most of our parents just want us to be happy and safe and to know the feeling of love and being loved. Senator Portman is probably in the last category. 

But, like my mother, who now actively and eagerly responds to her conservative friends when they say something insensitive about gay people, Senator Portman may not start screaming into megaphones at Freedom to Marry rallies, but he will balk at the hate his Party leadership has shown and still shows toward gays. For him, the Republican support for DOMA and their opposition to the freedom to marry and, we hope, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, are not just anti-gay positions, they are anti-Will Portman positions now. And that is the remarkable success story of coming out. Will Portman has allowed his father to put a loving face on a previously amorphous, distant concept. Coming out worked. We have a new ally. 

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  1. "Senator Portman may not start screaming into megaphones at Freedom to Marry rallies, but he will balk at the hate his Party leadership has shown and still shows toward gays."

    He will? How do you know this?

    Posted by: Shane | Mar 15, 2013 8:13:55 PM

  2. Thanks Ari. Beautifully written.

    Posted by: El | Mar 15, 2013 8:36:39 PM

  3. Well said. I agree Sen. Portman is no hero, nor brave, but he did the right thing. I hope he continues to do so.

    Posted by: ian | Mar 15, 2013 8:38:00 PM

  4. And if his son wasn't gay? Would he have just stuck with his support for DOMA until it was politically expedient not to? What about all the other people he represents who are LGBT-identifying folks who also want to have access to marriage equality? Were their lives and struggles not good enough?

    I'm sure more privileged folks are going to balk at us for not being overjoyed about this, but I guess I'm just an ungrateful queer who would rather have no allies at all that an ally whose prone to doing the "right" thing only when it personally affects him or his family. You know, in the way privilege works. Was he really that distanced from the whole backlash against queer folks that he didn't even think about how DOMA really impacted the lives of people way before he knew his son was gay?

    Forgive me if I don't feel obliged to thank Senator Portman for his support of marriage equality, especially since he didn't feel obliged to protect the rights of all Americans, naturalized and non-immigrant or otherwise, when he cosponsored DOMA. And don't tell me I shouldn't expect more from a Senator. There are a ton of other people who would do his job a thousand times better given the chance.

    Posted by: Jesus | Mar 15, 2013 8:39:37 PM

  5. To Rob Portman and his ilk (other Republican's who have recently come out in support of gay marriage), how many have you hurt over the years with your words and actions? This sudden 'revelation' does not and will not give you a free pass. I truly hope that history has recorded all the hate & bigotry that has emerged from these Republicans so they, and their family/ancestors can someday look back and see the hate they professed, and denounce them and their actions, the same as George Wallace's daughter has.

    Posted by: CB | Mar 15, 2013 8:49:15 PM

  6. @Jesus, Our enemies spend our whole lives trying to make us bitter and miserable. When we react with bitterness, they win. They win by making us miserable. They win by assuring that we push away people changing to our side. They win by making us, and our opinions, unlikable. It is hard for us to rebound from all their vitriol and hate, but we must. Don't let the haters win by turning you into a hater-back. "Living well is the best revenge."

    Posted by: John | Mar 15, 2013 8:49:39 PM

  7. The attacks on Portman miss an important point: he didn't hold back his support until such time as it personally affected him (meaning he only cared when he had a personal stake in it), but until such time as he gained personal understanding of the issue. It's a subtle difference, but an important one. "Gay" is an abstraction until it's not anymore, and his son's coming out made it no longer an abstraction. That's why Harvey Milk's point about coming out is so important and so accurate. It's much easier to be insensitive to a group of people you don't know, and much harder to someone you know and love. So now that he's a little more understanding of us, why not return the favor?

    Posted by: Rich | Mar 15, 2013 8:49:45 PM

  8. Ari, you touched on something important that I think is probably true for a lot of republicans and others who are not 100% comfortable with having gay children.

    When I was in my fifties, a priest came to my mom and dad's parish who never missed an opportunity to bad-mouth gay people. After a few sundays of it, my mom stopped going to church.

    They were married in that church in 1946, all of us were baptized and confirmed there. Till their deaths last year, they maintained friendships with parishioners dating back some 60 years and more.

    Even tho' it would be years before mom could speak openly with me about my being gay (I knew we'd turned a corner when she asked me to go to the mall with her to help her pick out make-up) she had long before that become unable and unwilling to tolerate listening to a priest bad mouth her son.

    The church has failed at convincing many people to reject their gay children, though many church leaders persevere. I doubt if very many republicans like hearing it any better than democrats do.

    Posted by: DannyEastVillage | Mar 15, 2013 8:52:37 PM

  9. I'm so glad you posted this. I was furious last year when the Log Cabin Republicans trashed Obama when he publicly supported marriage equality for being "a day late and a dollar short". For the Portmans, Obamas, Clintons and (dare I include?) Cheneys of this world who may have taken longer to come out for fairness, I applaud you. I'm not crazy about the length and path of your journeys, but I'm thrilled you reached your destination.

    Posted by: Bobby | Mar 15, 2013 8:55:36 PM

  10. Ari, your post perfectly expresses what I've been thinking about Portman's evolution — it's an example of the outcome we hope for when urging people to come out. I'm less inclined to fault Portman for past injuries than to wish him (and his son, and us) well on a journey well begun.

    Posted by: John W | Mar 15, 2013 8:56:05 PM

  11. Disappointing to see so many anti Portman comments by gays. What ever his motivation was, I welcome and do thank anyone who supports our rights. I know many people who were anti gay but changed their position, it not unusual. The President did the same thing. Let's not worry about when these people get it right, just be glad when they finally do get it right. We need to encourage more people to change their minds and support marriage equality and bashing those who do does not help that effort.

    Posted by: Ken | Mar 15, 2013 8:57:10 PM

  12. His being a senator is about all of his constituents, not just his son.

    Yes, it's great he's now supporting equality, but it's a selfish reason none the less. There has to be a deep reflection that has no personal gain to get my "hero" status placed upon someone changing their mind. It was this kind of deep self-reflection and taking into consideration the plight of others WITHOUT any personal gain that brought about the first wave of civil rights. Imagine if this were the case then. How would a bunch of white men have made the decision to vote for civil rights for all? How could it have been a personal reason then that directly affected them or an immediate loved one? From this perspective, it becomes clear that although his stance is a nice change for equality, it is gained only for himself and his immediate family; not the American people or constitution he swore to uphold.

    Posted by: zack | Mar 15, 2013 8:58:39 PM

  13. Let's not diminish this man. He's a Republican Senator, with nearly 60 years of life experience to drawn on. He's not just the dad down the street. (And, notably, this isn't the 20th century anymore, either)

    He had a responsibility to inform himself about things like this BEFORE voting (for a very long time) against us, and either he simply didn't care, or he actively decided to make our lives harder.

    Yes, he is fundamentally selfish.
    Yes, he is without empathy.
    It's bitterness, sure, but it's also fact, and it doesn't get erased by continuing to be selfish, in a way that happens to coincide what what we need.

    Like Ken Mehlman, he's going to have to do a LOT to reverse the damage he's knowingly contributed to.

    Posted by: Randy | Mar 15, 2013 8:59:45 PM

  14. @Shane: Ari knows this because Senator Portman has chosen his family - his son - over the hate-speech his party is so well-known for. Portman's choice to do so publicly makes Ari's inference a foregone conclusion.

    Posted by: DannyEastVillage | Mar 15, 2013 9:01:22 PM

  15. We have a new ally is way, way pushing it, but I do like this piece.

    Maybe my standards are too high, but I don't equate "I support _____ in spite/regardless of ____" as the same as "I support _______ BECAUSE of ______". There is a difference.

    I'm happy Rob Portman has gained some empathy. I'm mostly happy he's accepted his son. That's the biggest deal for me. Will is incredibly brave and deserves all the praise his dad Rob is getting.

    Rob Portman is in the same place many people have been and are. He says he's for marriage equality. He conceptually supports equality for all. But the people I'm thinking of don't do anything to fight for marriage equality. They don't lift a finger. They don't speak out. They don't really care overall. They're not against it, but they don't care. Rob Portman hasn't even addressed his position on ENDA where he said he believed people should be fired for their orientation. Does he support ENDA now?

    There are a lot of people these days who say they support our rights, but when push comes to shove, they can't be relied on. There isn't anything that has occurred the past two days that indicates Rob Portman doesn't fit this category. We need straight ALLIES and this doesn't pass muster. But it's good that he's changed his bigoted ways.

    Posted by: Francis | Mar 15, 2013 9:03:15 PM

  16. It took him two years after his son came out - but it only took him a few months after he was no longer under consideration for the VP slot on Romney's ticket.

    Posted by: distinguetraces | Mar 15, 2013 9:16:05 PM

  17. For me it's a little like skinheads who decide to keep kosher.

    Portman still believes that businesses have the right to discriminate in doing business with gay people.

    I will wait to popped the bubble!

    Posted by: Ray | Mar 15, 2013 9:17:21 PM

  18. "...latent bitterness at being a discriminated minority..." Thank you, Ari, for articulating my own subconscious frame of mind. Do you have any thoughts on how one conquers that for good?

    Posted by: Jack | Mar 15, 2013 9:24:35 PM

  19. I just don't agree with this. I found Richard Lawson's comments more in line with my thinking: "Rob Portman's sudden conversion perfectly illustrates the flippant, careless cruelty of the positions he once held. Until gayness in all its complexity and simplicity was staring him right in the face, in the shape of a person he helped create, Portman ultimately did not care about any of the country's gay people. He did not value their love, or the love they might have for their children. He didn't think them deserving of simple rights because he figured their relationships inferior to his own. Who knows how vehement his beliefs actually were, but really that doesn't much matter in the end. And really, if his stances on gay issues were for mere political gain rather than bedrock ideology, that makes it all the worse. In that case, gay people did not even deserve passion in the negative; their causes, their lives really, were meaningless to him, easily dismissed for the sake of political expediency. That's a pretty dark way to behave when you actually stop to think about it."

    Posted by: Jeff Kurtti | Mar 15, 2013 9:28:21 PM

  20. Nice piece. Many of us are so tired about those in our community who continually bash previously anti-gay leaders who -- for whatever their reasons -- have come around to be supportive of our community. I am no Republican, but without the (overdue) support of people like Rob Portman, Ken Mehlman and others of their ilk, it will take much longer, and it will be much harder, to win our victories.

    After apartheid was legally outlawed in South Africa, there was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Former apartheid leaders had the opportunity to apologize for their prior conduct and be "forgiven". Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu, who were probably the most respected anti-apartheid leaders, were strong believers in that Commission. It has helped South Africa move forward, it has helped wounds heal, and it has encouraged more people to "come over" to the right, moral side of that issue.

    I hope that our gay brethren and sisters can find it in their hearts, like Mandela and Tutu, to welcome support from the Melhmans and Portmans of this world and stop trashing them. Can you rise to the level of these great leaders like Mandela and Tutu?? That is the way to success and healing.

    Posted by: MiddleoftheRoader | Mar 15, 2013 9:34:38 PM

  21. Why I welcome him to the side of the equitable and enlightened, I don't embrace a man who is so shallow and unempathetic to others that something has to happen to him for him to even consider changing. I applaud his son...that is bravery being raised in the environment he was apparently raised, but Rob Portman's "evolution" is the product of selfishness and opportunity, not of a change of heart at examining the facts. You can laud a snake for eating the rats in your yard but it is still a snake.

    Posted by: Bart | Mar 15, 2013 9:40:36 PM

  22. Thank you. That was beautifully written.

    Posted by: Andrew | Mar 15, 2013 9:41:42 PM

  23. I think Portman's support of marriage equality is significant, and the catty tone of the editorial is unproductive. Just as the Reverend Al Sharpton's support for marriage equality is key in getting black support, Portman's epiphany will do the same with Evangelical Christians. And like it or not, they are a key voting block.

    Posted by: Andrew | Mar 15, 2013 9:50:16 PM

  24. My oder brother was a neighbor of Rob Portman and spoked to him about his two gay younger brothers. He asked Rob to support Gay Civil Rights. My parents moved to the same street to be near my older brother and his family 10 years ago. My step-father also talked to Rob about supporting Gay Civil Rights. Neither of them made got much of a positive response from their neighbor. I also wrote Mr. Portman over the years asking him to support Gay Civil Rights. I never heard back from any of my notes. I am happy that Senator Portman is finally coming around to support Equality Gay Americans including his son.

    Posted by: Brad | Mar 15, 2013 10:07:23 PM

  25. Some of you need to think about the mnessage you are sending. If they are damned if they do and damned if they don't, then why should they take the more difficult political path?

    BTW, You do the same thing when you act like Democrats in general and Obama in particular can do no wrong. The Democoratic Party didn't come to support gay rights, to the degree that they do, overnight. It took people participating in a club that would have been just as happy without them.

    Remember the words of Betty Friedan- "Gay men aren't interested in liberation, they simply want the privilege to which they would otherwise be entitled."

    Posted by: David Hearne | Mar 15, 2013 10:12:06 PM

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