Ohio’s Portman flips, backs marriage equality

Ohio's Portman flips, backs marriage equality
Ohio's Portman flips, backs marriage equality
Associated Press

As recently as 2004, Sen. Rob Portman voted to change the U.S. Constitution to permanently prohibit marriage equality. Now, however, the Ohio Republican has changed his mind.

Senator Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican, has switched his stand on gay marriage, saying he now supports it after his son told him he is gay.

Mr. Portman, who had been considered one of the leading candidates to be Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, told Ohio newspapers that his son Will told him and his wife, Jane, in 2011 of his sexual orientation.

“It allowed me to think of this 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,” Mr. Portman was quoted by Cleveland.com as telling reporters in an interview in his Washington office.

The number of elected Republican officials who are on record supporting marriage equality is extraordinarily small – I believe Portman is alone among today’s Senate GOP – making his announcement welcome news for proponents of marriage rights.

Of course, Portman’s announcement also raises related questions. The Ohio Republican was, for example, a finalist for the Republican Party’s vice presidential nomination last year, and Portman told Mitt Romney about his gay son. Did this play a role in Romney’s decision to choose someone else? I have no idea, but it seems like a fair question.

What’s more, if Portman learned about his son’s sexual orientation in 2011, why did it take the senator so long to come around? And why was he still endorsing discriminatory policies in 2012?

While we’re at it, the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted that Portman could support legislation to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, but the senator said he hasn’t done this because he says “economic policy issues are his specialty.” First, senators are required to tackle a variety of issues. Second, I’ve seen Portman’s positions on economic issues, and if they’re his “specialty,” he’s in trouble.

But even putting all of that aside, there’s also a larger consideration to keep in mind about the nature of societal change.

To be sure, 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?

We’ve seen this a few too many times. A Republican will support Medicaid cuts right up until he sees the program up close, with his own eyes. Republicans will be skeptical about federal disaster relief right up until it’s their community that sees devastation. Republicans are prepared to deny basic rights based on sexual orientation, right up until it’s their loved one who’s gay.

It seems the key to American social progress in the 21st century is simple: more conservatives having more life experiences.

Indeed, I’d be glad to introduce Republican lawmakers to more Americans who are poor, in the hopes they’ll stop trying to cut health care programs; students, in the hopes they’ll stop opposing education investments; women, in the hopes they’ll stop opposing women’s health care; and African Americans, in the hopes that they’ll stop supporting voter-suppression tactics.

“It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that’s of a Dad who loves his son a lot,” Portman said. That’s a perfectly nice sentiment. But if his son came out as unemployed, would the senator give another look to economic stimulus and extended jobless benefits?