Moral Low Ground

U.S. Government

‘The Moral High Ground’: GOP Sen. Rob Portman Backs Marriage Equality after Son ‘Comes Out’

A leading Republican senator has come out in support of marriage equality two years after his own son came out of the closet and told him he’s gay.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), whose name was at the top of the list of potential running mates for Mitt Romney during the 2012 election campaign, found out his son Will was gay in 2011 when he told the senator and his wife Jane.

“It allowed me to think of the 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 Jane and I have had for over 26 years,” Portman told reporters in an interview in his Senate office in Washington, DC.

Portman had been a longtime staunch opponent of gay rights, voting for the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the 1996 law that defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman for federal and inter-state recognition purposes, as well as against allowing same-sex couples to adopt children in Washington, DC in 1999.

In May 2011, a group of students at the University of Michigan Law School, citing his “openly hostile” stance on LGBT issues, protested a graduation address by Portman. More than 100 students walked out of the ceremony. Portman already knew his son was gay for a few months at the time.

During his interview, Portmand acknowledged the “change in my position that I have had in Congress and also here in the Senate the last couple of years,” and said that his shift “came about through a process” following his son’s revelation.

Portman said he and Jane were both surprised at the news, but that they were “very supportive of him” and wanted him to “know we were 100 percent supportive and we love him.”

“He’s an amazing young man,” Portman said of Will, who is currently a junior at Yale University.

Among the people Portman said he spoke to about the issue of marriage equality was former Vice President Dick Cheney, whose own daughter Liz is openly lesbian.

“His advice was: ‘Do the right thing; follow your heart,’” Portman told reporters.

Portman’s change of heart seems to reflect a gradual but steady shift in public attitudes toward gay marriage in the United States. Last year, President Barack Obama made history by endorsing marriage equality. A majority of Americans now support marriage equality, and for the first time, voters at the state level (Maine, Maryland and Washington) have granted LGBT Americans marriage rights via the ballot box rather than through legislation. Also for the first time, a state ballot measure (Minnesota) that would have constitutionally banned gay marriage failed. Voters in 31 states have approved constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriages.

Even some Republicans have boldly begun to change their minds on marriage equality, which many social justice advocates call the defining civil rights issue of our time. For some of them, supporting same-sex marriage contrasts starkly with their otherwise far-right views. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), for example, who is arguably the most pro-LGBT Republican member of the House, is an unapologetic supporter of far-right anti-Castro Cuban exile terrorists who, among many other acts, bombed a civilian airliner, killing 73 innocent civilians.

Like Portman and Cheney, Ros-Lehtinen’s change of heart seems to be based on the fact that one of her own children is gay. Her daughter Amanda came out as a transgender man who now calls himself Rodrigo and is a field organizer for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Often, conservatives who shift their stance on gay rights issues justify their action by citing core Republican values of liberty and family. In an op-ed piece in the Columbus Dispatch, Sen. Portman writes:

British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he supports allowing gay couples to marry because he is a conservative, not in spite of it. I feel the same way. We conservatives believe in personal liberty and minimal government interference in people’s lives. We also consider the family 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.

But what about Christianity’s condemnation of homosexuality?

“I 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,” Portman wrote. “Ultimately, it came down to the Bible’s overreaching themes of love and compassion and my belief that we are all children of God.”

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