In a column in today's issue of Yale Daily News, junior Will Portman writes about his coming out process, the one that led to his father, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, becoming the only Republican in the senate to openly support same-sex marriage. The younger Portman's column, titled simply "Coming Out," is clear and concise and makes him seem like a thoughtful kid, though it raises more questions about how his father sought to publicly portray this ideological shift.
Of course what happened within the Portman family was, like any family matter, likely complicated, and Will gives us a sense of that. But Rob's simpler version of events — his son came out, he changed his mind — still looks like political expediency. Will writes in the YDN: "We had decided that my dad would talk about having a gay son if he were to change his position on marriage equality. It would be the only honest way to explain his change of heart." Portman came out to his parents in early 2011 while a freshman at Yale, sending them a letter after trying and failing to tell them in person. To hear Will Portman tell it, both his mother and father were immediately supportive, though admittedly surprised and full of questions. Again, that was in early 2011. In May of that year a sizable portion of Michigan's graduating law class walked out of their commencement, where Rob Portman was a speaker, to protest his opposition to same-sex marriage. Yet he did not come out in support of gay marriage until almost two years later. So was his silence an effort to not publicly out his son? Why couldn't he support same sex marriage and leave his kid's name out of it, if that was the concern?
In the intervening two years, Portman was also on the shortlist of potential Romney running mates, and, according to Will, told the Romney campaign "that he and my mom were supportive and proud of their son, and that we’d be open about it on the campaign trail," but it's unclear if "supportive" means vocally supporting marriage equality or what. If yes, that could have cost him the ticket. That possibility casts Portman's March announcement in a more cynical light.
Of course Romney passed over Portman for another popular Midwestern politician, Rep. Paul Ryan, but Portman did not appear to have any objections campaigning for other politicians who opposed marriage equality. According to the AP's account of a campaign stop on behalf of Brad Wenstrup, a Republican running for Portman's old congressional seat, a voter at the Olde Wayside Inn had this to say of Barack Obama's recent endorsement of gay marriage: "[Issue] No. 1 for me is the morals of this country. … [Obama] just lost this county. There's no way." The candidate assured the crowd that he agreed with the voter, while Portman tried to steer the conversation away from the issue. "I don't think it's going to be an issue in this election, compared to jobs," Portman told The Associated Press's Dan Sewell. "I mean, what people care about is how are we going to turn this economy around and what do you do with these record debts and deficits."
The younger Portman's essay doesn't disprove that his politician father is not a calculating politician, nor did he set out to. But it does remind me that, obviously, we don't know the inner workings of a family we've never met. And of course there is nuance working in everyone's heart. No matter the means necessary, it's undeniably a good thing to have a high-profile Republican senator on the right side of things, even if it's a solitary issue. We can all theorize that Portman and Claire McCaskill are simply rushing in just under the wire, perhaps sensing that this week's Supreme Court decisions will strike down DOMA and Prop 8. But ultimately I suppose distrusting their motivations is not the most productive thing. And it does sound as though Sen. Portman is good to his son, which hopefully means that in the future he'll more consistently be good to others.
As I wrote earlier, Sen. Portman's policy reversal, while ultimately a positive development for the equality movement, doesn't absolve him of the positions he once held and the stances he tacitly or directly supported; particularly voting for a Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and supporting a bill outlawing gay adoption. Of course his opinions are allowed to change, but that they did only when the issue concerned someone close to him speaks to a failure of broader compassion. It's an unideal conversion, though I know we should be happy for it nonetheless.