Senator Rob Portman: What Took You So Long?

Emily Heist Moss says it shouldn’t take having a gay kid for our political leaders to think about fairness and justice.

Last week, Senator Rob Portman, a Republican of Ohio, finally reversed his position on marriage equality after his 21-year-old son came out nearly two years ago. In some circles, Portman was lauded for his bravery in flying in the face of his party’s stance. In others, he was marked a traitor for turning his back on Republicans on one of their marquee issues. Some people, like me, tried to both welcome his change of heart—after all, shifting opinions is the fastest way we’ll get to equality—while simultaneously struggling with the “selfishness” of his decision. Only after his immediate family was affected by discriminatory law was Portman able to see the light. To me, that feels like a failure of empathy.

My own feelings on this news item have, in the words of the President, “evolved” over the last few days as I read the work of writers I respect and as I talked to friends who have a more intimate understanding of the the process of coming out. As I take you through my own ideological evolution, maybe we can together parse out some of the very complicated, very personal, very emotional threads that bind parents, children, politics, and love.


Referring to his son’s coming out, Senator Portman said, “It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that’s of a dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have—to have a relationship like Jane and I have had for over 26 years.” When I first read that statement, I skipped right past the meat of it—the changing of Portman’s position—and went racing full speed for some plain-old liberal outrage. To me, the statement screamed of a certain privileged hypocrisy, that frustrating ability of our rich, white, straight male leaders to only acknowledge oppression and discrimination when their own offspring are at risk. What about other people’s children? What about everyone who was discriminated against while you were still living in a cave?

After I wrote a blog post to that effect, and my frustration had been fully vented into the ether for the Internet to consume, I began to calm down. The first thing I did was read more commentary, especially the kind that eviscerated this position I had just publicly taken. Slate’s William Saletan did a particularly good job, as did Ari Ezra Waldman at Towleroad, of arguing that what liberals like me were neglecting in their scathing portraits of Portman was any empathy for him and the common phenomenon of parents across America coming to terms with their gay kids. Both writers argued that the shift in Portman’s position is exactly what we want to happen if we ever want marriage equality to become a national policy. We want opponents to meet gay people, or realize they’ve known them all along, and to use that familiarity to help them get on the bandwagon.

It took several more hours of conversation for me to realize why Saletan and Waldman’s argument still wasn’t resonating with me. I talked to gay friends about their parents’ paths to acceptance, most of which happened over time, but the comparison, while certainly relevant, felt hollow. There’s a difference, I think, between your average American parent evolving from “I’ll never have grandchildren!” to marching in a Pride parade, and a politician whose job it is to represent his constituents. Portman represents Ohio, a state of 11 million people. Thousands upon thousands of his constituents are gay, and many more are the parents, siblings, children, and friends of gay Americans. Their rights are his responsibility too. The average American parent is only reconciling their own expectations with the lives of their children, not voting on policy that affects the lives of millions. Portman has that kind of power and so his responsibility to empathize is greater.

I’ve been told I’m holding my political leaders to too high a standard, that what I’m asking for is too idealistic and unreasonable given our current electoral system. Those critics are probably right. What I want is for my representatives to be inquisitive about how “the other side” lives. I want them to spend time with families of all shapes and sizes in their districts, to understand poverty because they have seen it, to empathize with the victims of discrimination because they have heard their stories. Our representatives are overwhelmingly white, male, straight and wealthy while America is not. If they vote in their own interests, or in the interests of their peers, they will serve only themselves. Doing the mental work of trying to understand the “other” might make you a more empathetic person, but for politicians, it should be part of the job description.


That’s why I’m disappointed in Senator Portman, not because his personal ideological evolution took too long, but because he failed to do the diligence I (perhaps unrealistically) expect of my representatives. It shouldn’t take having a gay kid for him to spend some brain space thinking about fairness and justice. It’s his job to think about these things, whether they affect him and his or not. That’s why we picked him to represent us. That said, another friend reminded me that all of the criticism we have been hurling could be directed to more relevant targets. After all, Senator Portman is on board now, so maybe we should spend our energy, our outrage, and our column inches on those that are still in the dark ages. Who’s next?

Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has been published at Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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