Rob 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."
Social 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.