The Personal and the Political

There has been a flurry of publicity in the wake of Ohio Senator Rob Portman’s announcement that he has changed his position on same-sex marriage. Portman had been a reliable vote for pro-discrimination measures—he’d supported DOMA and voted for a Constitutional amendment to declare marriage a union between one man and one woman, among other things. Now, he is the only Republican Senator to support marriage equality. So what changed his mind?

His son came out.

Critics immediately pounced. The criticisms focused on the fact that Portman was perfectly willing to demonize and disenfranchise people he didn’t know—that it was only when disparate legal status hit closer to home that he was willing to re-examine his previous positions.  Some speculated that he had never really been a “culture warrior”—he had never led the charge against GLBT folks, only voted the party line—but that he’d been willing to parrot the homophobes in his party (and not so incidentally pander to the GOP base) until the policies hit close to home.

Others in the gay community were more willing to welcome Portman to the side of the good guys, essentially arguing “better late than never.” If it took a personal connection to the issue to usher Portman out of the dark side, so be it. At least he made the move. And he clearly loves and accepts his son. (A reporter asked Rick Santorum how he would react in a similar situation, and the answer was far less affirming.)

My own reaction is that Portman’s intellectual honesty is irrelevant. If there is anything that this most recent conversion proves, it is the wisdom of the tactic of coming out—the broad and lasting political impact of thousands of acts of personal courage over a period of many years.

I remember the time when most gay people were firmly in the closet—when a chance encounter with one of my sons’ high school teachers when my husband and I met friends at a local gay bar clearly terrified him. Had I mentioned the encounter, he could have lost his job. In that world, a bigot like Jesse Helms could credibly claim that he’d never met a gay person. In the popular imagination of the time, gay men wore feather boas and danced in gay bars. Gays and lesbians were exotic “others,” and easy to demonize.

Coming Out as a deliberate political tactic changed that forever.

Younger gay people may still dread coming out to their friends and families, but the environment they face is dramatically more accepting than it was ten or twenty years ago. For that, they owe an earlier generation a great debt of gratitude. A generation ago, coming out took tremendous courage. You could lose your job, your friends, your family. The thousands who took that risk, however, put a face on what had previously been faceless. Suddenly, gays weren’t some deviant and foreign species—they were your doctor, your nephew, your Aunt Gladys and her “roommate” of 30+ years. They were people you knew and loved.

They were Ellen DeGeneris and Anderson Cooper and Rachel Maddow.

In the early days of the Women’s Movement, a favorite saying was “The personal is the political.” Each of us has the power to change social norms—one person at a time, confronting injustice, makes a difference. The enormous cultural shift that has occurred as a result of thousands of GLBT folks coming out is proof that the slogan is true.

At the end of the day, do we really care whether Rob Portman casts a vote for equality because he has weighed the equities of the situation and recognized that it is the just and moral thing to do, or because he loves his son?

I don’t think so.


  1. Rachel Maddow made an interesting observation on Friday’s Bill Maher Show. Portman stated his shift only after his consideration to be picked for Vice President was past. Another point she made was Republicans do not make this kind of shift unless there is someone close to an individual Republican so that the matter becomes personal. She said she hopes some Republican Senators will wake up to a poor child. Of course, that will not happen. All, or nearly all, the members of the Senate are millionaires.

  2. Sheila; for myself the “end of the day” for Portman is in your third paragraph. A description of a staunch Republican who will stand his ground and vote party lines no matter the situation – or personal connection. I doubt his sincerity regarding supporting his change of view on same-sex marriage because it took two years to make this view public. Is his support confined to his son or does it sincerely encompass all GLBT persons? It appears to me that, because his son “came out” two years ago, his political career and party loyalty was of primary importance to him. His voting record on same-sex marriage needs to be closely monitored if we are to know where he truly stands on this issue. Which brings up the question; how many other issues has he followed party line and ignored his personal beliefs and values? Republicans may be staunch but they are not known for their loyalty; look what they did to Senator Lugar because he voted a few times agains GOP stand on issues. Portman now needs to watch his back within the Republican party or he will quickly be gone.

  3. I’m reminded of the saying, “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” You’re exactly right, Sheila, The pro same sex marriage side ought to be celebrating. So what if his motives were personal or political?

  4. You know, the timing of this, when the RNC is calling for a “rebranding” (not a re-thinking of their positions due to their utter senselessness, but rebranding them), is suspicious. Part of a grand strategy to de-demonize “Republicans” as a group?

  5. Highly unlikely, JM. Portman coming out for same-sex marriage does no favors for him politically. While it polls high among Democrats and self-described independents, it still polls really low with Republicans as a whole. And presumably, Democrats already wouldn’t vote for Portman. So he gains nothing politically out of this.

    It’ll be interesting if he does get involved in a movement to try to override Ohio’s marriage definition amendment. Would he support a court challenge to it? Would he support a new referendum to void it?

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