Republican Senator Rob Portman may not be a sign-holding member of the Westboro Baptist Church, but he’s still among the least likely conservative politicians to come out in favor of gay rights: Portman previously supported a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act and championed a bill prohibiting gay couples from adopting.
But this week, the Ohio Senator announced that he’s had a change of heart; in light of his son’s recent coming out, Portman declared he’s now very much in favor of gay marriage.
In an op-ed penned for The Columbus Dispatch this week, the senator discussed the rationale behind his decision:
“I have come to believe that if two people are prepared to make a lifetime commitment to love and care for each other in good times and in bad, the government shouldn’t deny them the opportunity to get married,” he said.
He added, “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...”
It’s a landmark moment in the fight for LGBT rights. Portman is the first sitting GOP senator to support marriage equality. His timing couldn’t be more critical—or less coincidental.
In the coming weeks, the Supreme Court is scheduled to convene over the Defense of Marriage Act, which if struck down, would end the federal ban on gay marriage. The old Senator Portman would have campaigned hard to uphold it, but his kinder, gentler version could encourage thousands of his fellow conservatives to reconsider their positions.
At the very least, gauging public support of marriage equality—especially when it’s being championed by a conservative leader—may be what the cause needs to tip the scales in favor of ending DOMA once and for all.
Ross Murray of GLAAD tells TakePart that Portman’s decision to “come out” as a gay marriage advocate is a triumph for the cause. “We are very happy because his voice is getting added to this continuingly growing list,” Murray says. “His coming out today in support of marriage equality is just more evidence that marriage equality is now a bipartisan issue, which it wasn’t before.”
Still, Portman is already taking heavy criticism—and not from conservatives (though that is most likely forthcoming). His first opponents in battle this morning were progressive sites, which insist that the senator’s shame lies in the fact that he was only able to shift his position after his son revealed he was gay.
Critics question why it took a personal experience for Portman to finally realize that gay people are human beings. And if a family connection is required to enact changes in the senator’s thinking, will the fact that he has a daughter, and maybe a distant food-insecure cousin on the Ohio-Kentucky border, spur him to address other human rights issues such as reproductive rights or ending hunger in America?
Questions aside, Portman has earned a congratulatory handshake for recognizing that at least when it comes to gay rights, his former position was discriminatory and unfair.
Murray says that none of the quibbling is really important; GLAAD is chalking up Portman’s change of heart as a giant win. “We want everyone to be able to move forward. Frankly, I think that his story of being opposed to marriage equality and now being supportive is actually going to be really helpful for other people, especially for people who are on the fence about marriage equality,” he says. “They can hear his story and then think, ‘Okay, it’s okay where I am, and it’s also okay for me to move to a place that is more supportive.’ ”
While the senator may be reaping a fresh wash of positive publicity from marriage equality proponents, it shouldn’t be forgotten who the real hero of the story is—his son, Will. As a college freshman, Will Portman had the fortitude to come out to his very conservative father and then allow his dad to tell their personal story in public.
Murray says, “It was really courageous of Senator Portman’s son to open up and share his life with his father. And it’s something that we all get to benefit from. From a very personal interaction, it’s something that’s going to have a really big impact on the rest of the country. As much as people want to thank Senator Portman, let’s thank his son.”
Thank you to Will, who remains ever humble. This is what he posted today on his public Twitter feed:
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and medical writer. In addition to reporting the weekend news on TakePart, she volunteers as a webeditor for locally-based nonprofits and works as a freelance feature writer for TimeOutLA.com. Email Andri | @andritweets | TakePart.com