Republican Sen. Rob Portman’s endorsement of same-sex couples’ freedom to marry was long overdue. And though it took him a while, this move from the Republican senator from Ohio—who was on the shortlist of possible candidates to join Mitt Romney’s presidential ticket and served as a prominent Bush-43 administration official—is a Big Deal.
It’s great that Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, Jon Huntsman and Meg Whitman have all announced that they support same-sex marriage. But of the mix of pro-gay conservatives, Portman is the only sitting U.S. senator from a swing state. To date, he is the most senior, most conservative, in-office Republican to endorse same-sex marriage. Rob Portman, like pre-2008 Mitt Romney, was no culture warrior, but nobody doubted his conservative credentials. Indeed, every single time he had had the chance to vote against same-sex marriage, he took it.
Most striking about Sen. Portman’s reversal, however, is how it highlights the ability of straight allies to be powerful voices for LGBTQ rights in a way that was not as true for earlier civil rights struggles. When women and people of color were fighting for recognition of their rights, there was no doubt of their identity—clearly, nobody chooses his or her race or gender—but the myth persists, among some, that sexual orientation is chosen and that this orientation is less worthy of our recognition.
We don’t make these cases about recognition of rights on their merits. We don’t argue that women should have the right to vote because they are good—we don’t argue that men have the right to vote because we’re good. Women should have the right to vote because they, like men, are human beings and are citizens of this incredible nation, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.
Likewise, we don’t argue that gay people should have the freedom to marry because they’re good—straight people certainly don’t have the freedom to marry because we’re always good.
We make the case that gay people should be able to get married not because they’re good, but because they are people—people with inherent worth and dignity who, regardless of any individual thoughts about the morality of their sexual orientation, deserve the respect we afford everyone else.
Sen. Portman said as much in his “coming out” interview: “The overriding message of love and compassion that I take from the Bible, and certainly the Golden Rule, and the fact that I believe we are all created by our maker—that has all influenced me in terms of my change on this issue.”
And it’s that last point—that gay people are people—that is so important and that is never made so clearly as when the people we know and love find the courage to come out of the closet and live openly and honestly. It’s why the images of “gay weddings” are so important—they show the world that, just like everyone else, gay people get married because, like everyone else, they fall in love.
I know a little something about this. When my two moms had their first commitment ceremony back in 1996, they walked down the aisle to theme song of Star Trek: Voyager. (To boldly go where no man has gone before!) Even though there was no marriage license, no exchange of legal rights or commitment, my moms loved each other and wanted to show the world how much they cared for one another.
At the end of the day, of course, that’s really what this is all about. Sen. Portman didn’t announce his change of heart because it will help his re-election chances. It probably won’t. But, appropriately, marriage and love are both known for making people do things that, to others, seem irrational.
Sen. Portman, we’re glad you’re standing on the side of love.