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Decent Exposure: Portman’s Pro-Gay Reversal Part of Obvious Trend

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Slade Sohmer

By Slade Sohmer on March 15, 2013

Nine years ago, committed gay couples could not legally marry anywhere in the United States. Now nine states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriages. That’s progress, slowly but surely. With more dominoes like Illinois and Minnesota ready to fall, soon it’s possible you’ll see as many states allowing gay couples to wed as those that allow residents to marry their cousins (it’s 25 for cousins, if you’re curious, or George Michael Bluth).

As a congressman, and now as a U.S. senator, Rob Portman has always stood against same-sex marriage. It’s where his party is, and has been forever. But he’s, admirably, leaving his partisan affiliation behind. Portman announced his support for same-sex couples’ right to be married, based on conversations with his 21-year-old gay son Will, a junior at Yale University.

Portman becomes the only pro-marriage equality Republican senator, and the state of Ohio now has two sitting senators who support marriage equality in a state with a Constitutional amendment banning gay couples from marrying.

(One quick, important shot across the Portman bow, then we’ll get back to rainbow-humping hippie positivity: In Portman’s comments, and his terrific op-ed, he has come out for same-sex marriage rights. But does he support full equality? Will came out two years ago, yet as recently as nine months ago Portman said he would not support the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, which would ban firing someone because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity. This needs to be the first question asked today.)

There are many reasons for the slow, steady rise in the passage of same-sex marriage laws, like generational shifts, societal prevalence and increased political pressure by advocacy organizations. All of that matters a great deal. But what will ultimately matter most as the fight for rights continues, as we’ve seen here with Portman’s eye-opening reversal, is simple exposure and communication. This is nothing new. This is Harvey Milk 101.

Because this is a trend, and a painfully obvious trend at that. As more legislatures take up the issue, as more witnesses come in to testify about their love for one another, as more gay people come out to their families, lawmakers regardless of party are beginning to realize this isn’t about some broad referendum on rights but rather a duty to read, research and discuss the issue with the people it affects most. It’s about actually meeting the people whose lives you’re legislating. It’s about life, not lifestyle.

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Take Republican Wade Kach from Maryland, who came face-to-face with gay couples next to the witness table during a special joint committee before the key vote in the House of Delegates. What ultimately swayed his decision to vote against the majority of his party? “I saw with so many of the gay couples, they were so devoted to another,” he said. “I saw so much love. When this hearing was over, I was a changed person in regard to this issue. I felt that I understood what same sex couples were looking for.”

Take Republican State Senator Mark Grisanti from New York, who was one of the four Republicans who voted with 29 of 30 Democrats in favor of successful same-sex marriage legislation. His speech about his evolution on the issue — “I simply opposed it in the Catholic sense of my upbringing,” he said — could (and should) be the modern GOP blueprint:

“I have never in the past four months researched an issue or met with so many people and groups on a single issue such as this,” he said on Vote Night. “I have struggled with this immensely, I can tell you that. I have read numerous documents, independent studies, talked with a lot of people on both sides of this issue. As a Catholic I was raised to believe that marriage was between a man and a woman. I’m not here however as a senator who is just Catholic. I’m also here with a background as an attorney, through which I look at things and I apply reason. … To those whose support I may lose, please know that in the past what I was telling you, and what I believed at that time was the truth. But by doing the research and ultimately doing what I believe to be the right thing, to me shows integrity.

Portman joins Jon Huntsman, Jr. as a full-throated supporter of the conservative argument for marriage equality. In his op-ed, he wrote:

British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he supports allowing gay couples to marry because he is a conservative, not in spite of it. I feel the same way. We conservatives believe in personal liberty and minimal government interference in people’s lives. We also consider the family unit to be the fundamental building block of society. We should encourage people to make long-term commitments to each other and build families, so as to foster strong, stable communities and promote personal responsibility.

One way to look at it is that gay couples’ desire to marry doesn’t amount to a threat but rather a tribute to marriage, and a potential source of renewed strength for the institution.

Hearts and minds, hearts and minds. Ultimately, this isn’t about gay rights, or even gay people for that matter. It’s about exposing yourself to the unknown. The same could be said for our opinions about what it’s like for others to be poor, or minorities, or immigrants, or whatever group we currently don’t understand. This is about meeting people who enjoy different lives than yours, instead of relying on basic stereotypes and propaganda.

Go out and experience a world different from yours. Be the city slicker who sits down with the farmer. Be the Wall Street banker who sits down with the single mother that can’t pay her electric bill. Be the border restrictionist who sits down with the Ecuadorian landscaper whose entire family is waiting back home on his paycheck. Don’t just imagine what it’s like to put yourself in someone else’s shoes; go see what it’s like to put yourself in their lives, if even just for a moment, for a flicker of honest conversation.

Sen. Portman says he believes “all of our sons and daughters ought to have the same opportunity to experience the joy and stability of marriage.” He’s right, though it shouldn’t have to be about someone in your family enjoying the same basic freedoms, opportunities and happiness as everyone else. The family dinner table is as good a place as any to continue this earnest conversation, but let’s make it a big enough table to set a place for everyone.

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