The big political news today — apart from often predictable, red-meat filled speeches at CPAC — is that Republican Ohio Sen. Rob Portman has now changed his position and supports marriage equality. Why he shifted to supporting gay marriage is as significant as the shift. In an op-Ed in The Columbus Dispatch he wrote:
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.
That isn’t how I’ve always felt. As a congressman, and more recently as a senator, I opposed marriage for same-sex couples. Then something happened that led me to think through my position in a much deeper way.
And what happened?
Two years ago, my son Will, then a college freshman, told my wife, Jane, and me that he is gay. He said he’d known for some time, and that his sexual orientation wasn’t something he chose; it was simply a part of who he is. Jane and I were proud of him for his honesty and courage. We were surprised to learn he is gay but knew he was still the same person he’d always been. The only difference was that now we had a more complete picture of the son we love.
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, a blessing Jane and I have shared for 26 years.
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. Ultimately, it came down to the Bible’s overarching themes of love and compassion and my belief that we are all children of God.
Well-intentioned people can disagree on the question of marriage for gay couples, and maintaining religious freedom is as important as pursuing civil marriage rights. For example, I believe that no law should force religious institutions to perform weddings or recognize marriages they don’t approve of.
There’s more so go to the link and read it all.
What’s important here is not just the political shift. What’s important here is what we have several times: some Republicans who otherwise might be assumed to be against marriage equality change their perspective and position once they learn that someone dear to them is gay.
It’s the fact that it’s much easier to oppose someone or dismiss someone if they are merely in an individually faceless steroetypical group — women, gays, Latinos, Jews, African-Americans — – unless you happen to be very close to them. And then the stereotypes don’t seem as funny, the blanket demonizations or dissings don’t seem as fair.
This is taking nothing away from Portman’s decision, which showed him to be a loving parent who can take a step back and look at the bigger picture and reassess a previous position. But it dues reflect this truism: it’s far easier to oppose something unless it directly connects with you.
Here are Andrew Sullivan’s thoughts on whether this is a tipping point.
DEPARTMENT OF GREAT MINDS THINK ALIKE: The National Journal’s Matthew Cooper:
It’s impossible not to be touched by Sen. Rob Portman’s words about his son and his reversal on gay marriage. Even if you cling to the belief that marriage should be between one man and one woman, Portman’s love for his son, declaration of faith, and commitment to his own marriage was a rare display of authenticity at a time when almost all of our leaders’ utterances seem poll-tested and scripted. Portman revealed that his son’s disclosure two years ago that he was gay “allowed me to think about this issue from a new perspective and that’s as a dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister have.”
It often takes personal experience for us to have empathy. Harvey Milk, the slain San Francisco city councilman and gay activist, argued that homosexuals needed to come out to family and friends so people could see that gays weren’t outliers, but us. He turned out to be right—for surely the velocity of positions on gay marriage’s acceptance rests on personal experiences like the one Portman shared.
Of course, if you and I need a personal jolt to become empathetic, it’s one thing. That it’s true for politicians has greater consequences because they, arguably, need to be more empathetic than the rest of us. If they’re not, we’re at the mercy of the vicissitudes of their life.
Consider another admirable, eloquent senator, Mark Kirk of Illinois. The Republican was hit by a stroke and before he returned to the Senate earlier this year, the experience left him rethinking health care for the poor. “Had I been limited to [Medicaid] I would have had no chance to recover like I did. So unlike before suffering the stroke, I’m much more focused on Medicaid and what my fellow citizens face,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I will look much more carefully at the Illinois Medicaid program to see how my fellow citizens are being cared for who have no income and if they suffer from a stroke.”
That kind of empathy is welcome, but it’s also worth noting that with many politicians, it takes a personal experience to make them enthusiastically embrace government action.