Rob Portman's Selfish Reversal on Marriage Is a Triumph for Gay Rights

The Republican senator's embrace of marriage equality shows just how successful advocates have been in linking the personal with the political.

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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Rob Portman, Republican Senator from Ohio and a former frontrunner to be Mitt Romney's running mate, has declared that he now favors gay marriage. As Portman says in an op-ed for the Columbus Dispatch, his change of heart was personal:

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.

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.

Portman goes on to make the conservative (and entirely reasonable) case for gay marriage. Personal liberty means allowing folks to marry who they want without government interference. Marriage and family are stabilizing institutions, and more people, gay or straight, joining stabilizing institutions is a good thing.

The one thing Portman doesn't do, though, is explain why these conservative arguments seem reasonable to him now, when they didn't have force before. Or, rather, he does explain...but his explanation leaves most of the relevant moral issues hanging. 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? Shouldn't he, at the very least, not just promulgate his new views, but apologize for his old ones—perhaps by pointing out his earlier failure of empathy, and promising to do better in the future?

Several writers have pointed out Portman's lack of contrition. Jonathan Chait for one, writes:

Portman ought to be able to recognize that, even if he changed his mind on gay marriage owing to personal experience, the logic stands irrespective of it: Support for gay marriage would be right even if he didn't have a gay son. There's little sign that any such reasoning has crossed his mind.

Chait concludes:

[W]hy should any of us come away from his conversion trusting that Portman is thinking on any issue about what's good for all of us, rather than what's good for himself and the people he knows?

I don't disagree with Chait here. I am pleased that Portman has come out in favor of gay-marriage, but somewhat depressed to find in him a public servant who appears to be lacking in self-awareness or empathy. I know that politicians live to disappoint...but still. It's disappointing.

What I think Chait misses, though, is the extent to which Rob Portman's intellectual and moral mediocrity points to an amazing strategic victory by the gay rights movement. As Chait says, Portman's reversal on this issue appears to boil down to pure selfishness. But...there are many issues where selfishness, no matter how pure, does not translate into political action. As just one example, there is, and has long been, a great deal of evidence that women are routinely given Cesareans for no medical purpose. Yet, while there are many mothers who are needlessly subjected to this major abdominal surgery, those mothers and their loved ones do not, for the most part, become advocates for laws legalizing midwifery, or for changes in birth practices. Even though these women have a personal experience of policy failure and injustice, that experience does not translate into political action, because they simply do not see those personal experiences in political terms.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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