Sen. Rob Portman’s (R-OH) evolution on the issue of marriage equality — from opponent to advocate — followed a deeply personal conversation he had with his son two years ago. It’s a conversation countless families must grapple with and a conversation that now underscores the disconnect between the head and the heart of conservatism’s view of marriage equality at a pivotal moment in the debate.
Though Portman’s experience is heartening, Americans must demand more from their leaders than public acknowledgement of private family truths. Portman, Vice President Dick Cheney, and the recent wave of prominent conservatives coming out in support of equality should be commended for demonstrating a commitment to family above the politics of the moment. Still, respecting equality under the law should be a basic qualification for office, not an epiphany a lawmaker experiences after recognizing that inequality hurts the people he loves and the millions of parents and children he serves. The damage is caused largely by the anti-gay laws and policies that their party has championed for years. DOMA, for example, is a legislative reflection of the discrimination that forces hundreds of thousands of gay and lesbian children to remain hidden in the closet living in shame of who they are. DOMA is the reason that same-sex couples face a higher tax burden than their heterosexual counterparts, resulting in less income and higher poverty rates among the LGBT community. And DOMA demonstrates that LGBT people are still treated like second class citizens in a country that supposedly values equality and justice above all else. In coming out, one of the most powerful lessons learned is that telling your story may make it easier for the next person. By coming out to loving parents, Portman’s son made it that much easier for others to do the same. In fact, his example clearly demonstrates the ways in which coming out to your friends and family can enrich their lives, and may change the lives of people you’ll never meet. Last month, 131 prominent Republican politicians signed a brief calling on the Supreme Court to end DOMA and rule in support of marriage equality for same-sex couples. These Republicans have acknowledged what a strong majority of Americans already know: that there is no reason for a Washington bureaucrat to stand between LGBT Americans and the altar. While the degree to which Portman’s evolution will move his party forward is still uncertain, by sharing an honest love for his son and concern for his future, he will make it that much easier for others facing similar circumstances. Hopefully, Portman’s conversion will inspire lawmakers to recognize the damage their anti-equality policies are causing to their LGBT constituents before they realize the victims are their loved ones.