Last weekend, Senator Rob Portman became the first GOP senator to voice his support of gay marriage. It was a pretty dramatic reversal; Portman has previously voted against equal marriage and gay adoption rights. But the senator attributes his change of heart to the coming-out of his 21-year old gay son, Will, a touching testament to the endurance of a parent’s love and its unwillingness to bend to deeply ingrained prejudices and external political pressure. It is also evidence of the effectiveness of the LGBT equal rights movement’s time-honored approach to enacting real, meaningful change: come out, refuse to be invisible, tell your story, make it personal, change hearts and minds. Because they cannot hate us, once they know they already love us.
Unsurprisingly, Portman paid the price for reevaluating his position, and for articulating his support for his son: “Selfish,” “Narcissistic,” and “Hypocritical” were the words I saw used on social media.
Surprisingly, I saw them coming from the gay community.
From what I observed, the vast majority celebrated Portman’s newfound stance and recognized his journey with his son as another page in a book filled with similar stories culled from every corner of America. But a vocal minority, mainly among my twenty- and thirty-something peers, seemed awfully miffed due to a newly concocted Principle of The Thing: that it shouldn’t require a personal relationship to sway one’s heart in favor of equal rights.
I’m going to assume that such personal-is-political scenarios, which have played out countless times before – in living rooms and state houses alike – have not always bothered these individuals. It certainly did not bother them last May, when our Democratic president cited his relationship with his daughters, who have grown up with friends that have gay parents, for helping him evolve his attitude in support of same-sex marriage.
But a Republican, they seem to feel, belongs firmly in the Party of Wrong even when he is trying to make right. In Portman’s case, the supportive reaction to a son’s coming-out was seen not as a show of sincere emotion, but of elitism: not of self-evaluation, but of selfishness. “Typical Republican, only cares when his family is affected,” crowed those critics. “If only he had a poor son,” chortled others, charmed by their own witty reminder to Facebook friends that the Republican Party is still backwards on the economy and all those Other Issues To Which We All Agree. (Who? Liberal Democrats, of course, who are perpetually enlightened and never make errors like signing the Defense of Marriage Act or authorizing the use of secret, targeted killings of Americans using drones and without due process, no siree!)
I saw folks link to sarcastic articles supporting their point of view. One of the most popular selections came from Wonkette.com, and was titled “Hero Sen. Rob Portman Courageously Endorses Equal Rights For His Family Members.” (See what they did there? That’s smart!) The piece described Portman’s earlier support for anti-gay initiatives, before mocking that goddamned self-interested father’s about-face: “But now, whoaaaa, there’s a gay Portman, and suddenly things are Just. Not. Fair.”
Hmm. I’m not sure it’s as erudite, but here’s another quote to consider:
“Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all.”
That one was Harvey Milk. He didn’t write for Wonkette.com, but he sort of had a way with words too.
But seriously - nearly every success of the modern LGBT movement can be traced back, one way or another, to the power of coming out. More specifically, to the way it forces our opponents to finally put a face, one they love, to the issue of equal rights. Ask anyone who has fought for marriage, and they will tell you that telling our stories is the way we win.
As a community, we can’t afford to reject “narcissistic” reactions like Rob Portman’s. We rely on them.
I don’t know that I really have to explain that to anyone. But maybe there are some who need a reminder: those of a certain generation, or those who operate within an insular bubble - determined by their geography or social set - that allows them the privilege of forgetting that not everyone is able to pick and choose their allies.
It is clear that Senator Portman has a long way to go in evolution on gay rights issue, and maybe it will be many more years before the personal transformation in his relationship with his own son manifests as tangible political action that benefits all our children. But plenty other parents have traveled that road before, and at least now he might do it with PFLAG at his side instead of NOM.
If contrarianism and conservative bashing for its own sake is the order of the day, count me out. I don’t implore my opponents to compromise, and then fault them for doing it wrong; I don’t play the right wing’s games. So I think I’ll tune out the peanut gallery on Twitter.
Well, not everyone. Last weekend, I also took a look at Will Portman’s account.
“Especially proud of my dad today…”
You know what? On this matter, I’m pretty sure that is the only comment that counts.