Last week, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a conservative Republican, announced in an editorial that he was officially changing his position on marriage equality. For the entirety of his political career until that point, Portman was a typical Republican. He believed that marriage was between a man and a woman, that there were no exceptions available, and that it was the government’s responsibility to legislate that morality and force it upon the masses.
Portman’s reason for changing his opinion is intensely personal but just as admirable: Two years ago, his own son came out to him as gay. In the two years that have elapsed since that moment, Portman has come to believe that his gay son deserves the exact same opportunities as his two other, heterosexual children. It’s a common-sense, duh-worthy position. But it’s not the obvious one for Republicans who feel either morally compelled or electorally challenged to support an anti-marriage-equality position.
In the time since Portman’s editorial, he has been attacked by fellow conservatives as everything from a sinner to a flip-flopper to a “Republican In Name Only,” or RINO. Liberals have attacked Portman for not having enough empathy to change his position until the issue affected his own son. This really misses the point in a big way.
Marriage equality will have its future tested before the Supreme Court next Tuesday, March 26th. Justices will hear a case regarding California’s Proposition 8, which could lead to marriage equality in all 50 states via the Constitution’s right to equal protection. A case regarding the federal Defense of Marriage Act, signed in the mid-90s by President Clinton, could result in federal recognition of same-sex marriages for the first time ever.
When the stakes are this high, liberals do themselves a disservice to criticize any person who embraces their position on the key civil rights issue of our generation. Sure, it would’ve been nice for Rob Portman to support the cause all along. He didn’t, but he does now, at a key moment in the movement’s history.
As a gay American and someone who does very much hope to get married someday, the next week will be key. The court’s decision, expected in June, will be either a major liberation or a significant setback. Portman’s decision to be the first elected Republican to support marriage equality, though, is a moment of liberation no matter its context, reasons, or asterisks. And that is something that I, and every intelligent gay man and lesbian woman in America, absolutely must recognize at this critical time.