Brighten their holiday. Enrich their everyday.Give The Atlantic

What Rob Portman Learned

Now that Republican senator Rob Portman's son has come out to him, he supports gay marriage. This makes him the first Republican senator to hold that position. That's great, right?

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Now that Republican senator Rob Portman's son has come out to him, he supports gay marriage. This makes him the first Republican senator to hold that position. That's great, right? Progress is progress no matter where it happens or who makes it. Portman may have voted for a federal amendment banning gay marriage and a bill banning gay adoption, but that's the past. People, even conservative politicians, are allowed to evolve, and we should welcome them into the fold when they do, because there is strength in numbers. That's the essential truth of this matter. But boy is it hard to feel that way.

Meaning, my initial reaction to this news was anger. Not anger in a terribly aggressive way, more like a bitter sense of having had a suspicion confirmed. The root of this kind of ideological bigotry — people who work to legislate against gay rights, against women's access to fundamental healthcare, against measures that help the poor — is a fundamental lack of compassion, an inability to view something that feels faraway from one's own experience as anything but strange and alien and therefore off-putting or, most callously, as frivolous. People like Portman stridently work against other people's interests until a crucial moment, both shaming and enlightening, when it becomes their interest too. It's good that they ultimately come around on whatever the issue is — "Programs helping the poor are good because I lost all my money." "My teenage daughter is pregnant and in no way prepared to have a baby." — but does it erase the fact of their larger lack of compassion? I'm not sure it does.

Rob Portman's sudden conversion perfectly illustrates the flippant, careless cruelty of the positions he once held. Until gayness in all its complexity and simplicity was staring him right in the face, in the shape of a person he helped create, Portman ultimately did not care about any of the country's gay people. He did not value their love, or the love they might have for their children. He didn't think them deserving of simple rights because he figured their relationships inferior to his own. Who knows how vehement his beliefs actually were, but really that doesn't much matter in the end. And really, if his stances on gay issues were for mere political gain rather than bedrock ideology, that makes it all the worse. In that case, gay people did not even deserve passion in the negative; their causes, their lives really, were meaningless to him, easily dismissed for the sake of political expediency. That's a pretty dark way to behave when you actually stop to think about it.

So Rob Portman did some cold things in the past, and was only able to realize the error of his ways when his own flesh and blood bravely stood up and said "Hey, you're talking about me too." That's what it took. None of the studies, the rallies, the protests, the legal victories, the testimonials, the documentaries, articles, books, plays, movies, television shows or anything could sway him, if we're to take what we learned today at face value. To me that indicates that there's a pretty thick wall separating his political convictions from the rest of the world. And while he maybe changed on this one issue, that does not mean that he is suddenly capable of extending that magnanimity elsewhere. I don't think that anyone is exactly greeting him with open arms, but it's probably still worth saying out loud that we should be wary of people like Portman, because they are policy makers who seemingly cannot project any feeling past their own cloistered experiences, who are only swayed when and if the issue suddenly aligns with their own self-interest. Are those the kind of hearts and minds we want directing national policy? I'm inclined to say no.

And let's not forget that Portman's unwillingness to think and feel beyond his own particular understanding is what is fueling the larger movement against gay rights. (And other causes, of course.) Hopefully an instance like this will remind all of us that even people who have climbed to the topmost echelons of power and access in the United States can still be ignorant to the broader world, many of them determinedly so. That's an important thing to remember, because it clues us into what drives their thinking. Yes, some of it is tied up in religious fervor and panicky squeamishness, but it's also a willful obtuseness, a perpetual act of refusing to work with difference, to respect it in any real way simply because of its difference. It's good that Portman was finally shaken out of his stupor by the simple revelation that difference had been a part of his life all along. But his real redemption will come only if he tries to do the same for those around him.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.