Something very good happened in the United States this week: Rob Portman, the Republican senator from Ohio, who co-sponsored DOMA and was once favoured to be Mitt Romney’s running mate, penned an editorial in the Columbus Dispatch, announcing his newfound support for gay marriage. He began to change his mind on the issue, he wrote, after his son Will came out of the closet two years ago. Here he is, below:
“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. Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love.”
For anyone unaffiliated with NOM, it would seem like pretty heartwarming stuff—good fodder for the next marriage equality PSA, or in the very least, something for Ellen DeGeneres to dance about. The consensus among progressive pundits, however, was decidedly different.
Rob Portman made the right choice, they argued, but his history of wrong ones (voting against gay rights) overrides that. Changing your mind for personal reasons is selfish. The only noble about-face is an altruistic one.
Witness below, a living example of Oscar Wilde’s observation that a “cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
Igor Volsky, the managing editor of ThingProgress.org, on Twitter:
“Kind of sad that Rob Portman probably wouldn’t have come out for marriage equality if his son wasn’t gay.”
Noah Berlatsky in The Atlantic:
“Portman says he changed his mind because he looked at his son and wanted him to have a happy life. But the gay people to whom Portman was denying marriage before his conversion—those people were also someone’s sons and daughters. Does Portman only care about suffering when it occurs in his family?”
Steve Benen, on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC blog:
“I’m genuinely glad Portman has done the right thing, and can only hope it encourages other Republicans to do the same. What I find discouraging, though, is that the Republican senator was content to support discriminatory policies until they affected someone he personally cares about. What about everyone else’s sons and daughters? Why must empathy among conservatives be tied so directly to their own personal interactions?”
The moral posturing would make Moses cringe.
Personal interaction has inspired practically all activism and ethical choice throughout history. We don’t discredit abolitionists who rejected slavery because of personal encounters with slaves, nor do we doubt the sincerity of activist parents who champion causes that affect their own children. Unless you are on the list of possibly two people in human history and imagination whose empathy is not tied to their own personal interactions (Jesus and God?), perhaps you should keep your righteous indignation to yourself.
Portman’s critics refuse to acknowledge that overcoming prejudice and changing one’s mind—for whatever reason—is a really big deal. It’s something that should be commended, especially when you come from an enormously anti-equality environment, in which minds do not change overnight.
Being gay is not a choice, but neither is being born to a socially conservative, Methodist family. The way a person is raised—to believe homosexuality is a grave sin for example—is as beyond his control as his sexual orientation. No one is immune to child rearing. I was not immune to my own secular Jewish, liberal upbringing, which instilled in me two core principles: that it’s perfectly okay to be gay but it’s not okay to drink milk with dinner. Had those principles been reversed, as I’m guessing they were in the Portman household, I don’t know what I would believe. I don’t know if I would have the courage to challenge my convictions as Rob Portman has, and announce publicly that they have changed. I don’t know because I am lucky to have never had to make such a choice. And I suspect, neither have any of the cynics above. It’s easy to love everyone and everything with conviction when you were never taught to hate.
I understand the urge to dismiss Portman and people like him—people who come out for equality later in life–if you have always been “out” yourself. But to dismiss him on those grounds is to lose sight of the bigger picture: Portman’s change is a boon for gay rights. And celebrating that change is an even bigger boon. It lets others know that if or when they follow suit, they too will be celebrated. They may lose friends in one corner, but they’ll gain a whole lot more, somewhere else. Chiding Rob Portman for his homophobic past isn’t bad for Rob Portman: it’s bad for gay rights. It leaves progressives in the closet and open-minded people in the dark–caught between one community that will denounce them for thinking differently, and another, for not thinking differently soon enough.
There will come a time when Republican lawmakers overwhelmingly support same-sex marriage, because it would be political suicide to do otherwise. If the pro-equality movement in the United States wants that time to come sooner rather than later, it should give its newest members an extra warm welcome.