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Topics In the News
Republican Senator Undergoes "Change of Heart"
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 03/15/13
Last updated on: 03/15/13
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Senator Rob Portman.

On March 14, 2013, Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman announced that he has undergone a "change of heart" and now supports marriage equality. Revealing that his son Will Portman, now a junior at Yale University, had come out two years ago, the Senator said that "I've come to the conclusion that for me, personally, I think this is something that we should allow people to do, to get married, and to have the joy and stability of marriage that I've had for over 26 years. That I want all of my children to have, including our son, who is gay."

In an exclusive interview with Dana Bash of CNN, Portman said that two years ago, when his son was a freshman at Yale, he told his parents that he was gay "and that it was not a choice, and that it's just part of who he is, and that's who he'd been that way for as long as he could remember." He added that his reaction to the news was "Love. Support."

Portman says that his son helped him work through his decision to announce his change in position on gay marriage and had given permission to publicly reveal his sexuality.

"I think he's happy and, you know, proud that we've come to this point, but he let it be my decision just as you know, it's going to be his decision as to the role he plays going forward in this whole issue," said Senator Portman.

A staunch conservative known particularly for his economic activism and flirtation with the Tea Party, Portman becomes the first sitting Republican U.S. Senator to endorse marriage equality.

He worked in the George H. W. Bush White House before serving in the House of Representatives from 1993 until 2005. He then worked in the George W. Bush administration as the United States Trade Representative and then as Director of the Office of Management and Budget. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010.

During his years in Congress, he earned a zero rating from the Human Rights Campaign. He consistently voted against any legislation that would advance gay rights, including a bill that permitted same-sex couples in the District of Columbia to adopt. He not only voted in favor of DOMA but was also a co-sponsor of the Federal Marriage Amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage throughout the nation by constitutional amendment. In addition, he supported the Ohio constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage in the Buckeye state.

Portman was a prominent supporter of Mitt Romney and a leading candidate to be chosen as Romney's running mate in 2012. Portman told Bash that during the vetting process he revealed that his son was gay, but does not believe that that is why he was passed over in favor of Paul Ryan.

Before announcing his "change of heart," Portman says he sought counsel from former Vice President Dick Cheney, the highest-ranking Republican with an openly gay child, his daughter Mary.

"I spoke to him personally; I actually met with him," said Portman. He added that Cheney's advice was simple: "'Follow your heart.'"

In 2011, when he delivered the commencement address at the University of Michigan Law School, 100 law school graduates walked out to protest his position on gay rights. "The decision to host a graduation speaker who is openly hostile to LGBT rights is deeply unfair to the LGBT students who will be in the audience this year celebrating their graduation," said the leader of the walkout.

In the interview with Bash, Portman half-heartedly defends his homophobic record. At one point, he says, "But you know, what happened to me is really personal. I mean, I hadn't thought a lot about this issue. Again, my focus has been on other issues over my public policy career."

When asked what he would say to gay constituents who may be wondering why it took having a gay son to come around to supporting their rights, he responded: "Well, I would say that, you know, I've had a change of heart based on a personal experience.

He continued: "Now it's different, you know. I hadn't expected to be in this position. But I do think, you know, having spent a lot of time thinking about it and working through this issue personally that, you know, this is where I am, for reasons that are consistent with my political philosophy, including family values, including being a conservative who believes the family is a building block of society, so I'm comfortable there now."

In an op-ed published on March 15, 2013 in the Columbus Post-Dispatch, Portman followed up the interview he gave to CNN with additional information about his change of heart.

In the op-ed, he declares forthrightly, "I have come to believe that if two people are prepared to make a lifetime commitment to love and care for each other in good times and in bad, the government shouldn't deny them the opportunity to get married." He then goes on to explain his evolution.

Of his son's revelation about his sexuality, he says, "Jane and I were proud of him for his honesty and courage. We were surprised to learn he is gay but knew he was still the same person he'd always been. The only difference was that now we had a more complete picture of the son we love."

He says, "I wrestled with how to reconcile my Christian faith with my desire for Will to have the same opportunities to pursue happiness and fulfillment as his brother and sister. Ultimately, it came down to the Bible's overarching themes of love and compassion and my belief that we are all children of God."

He declares that marriage equality is a conservative position: "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."

Portman concludes, "I've thought a great deal about this issue, and like millions of Americans in recent years, I've changed my mind on the question of marriage for same-sex couples. As we strive as a nation to form a more perfect union, I believe all of our sons and daughters ought to have the same opportunity to experience the joy and stability of marriage."

Portman's change of heart has been welcomed by marriage equality activists across the country. Many believe that it will be influential especially within the Republican Party, where Portman enjoys a great deal of respect.

The change of heart certainly indicates the value of coming out as a method of influencing others. But the very personal nature of Portman's evolution also bespeaks a kind of selfishness on his part. It certainly reveals the limits of his imagination and the narrowness of his empathy. He apparently lacked the moral imagination to understand how the policies he supported affected his gay and lesbian constituents until he was forced to realize that among those constituents was his own son.

In the video below, Logan Tittle of Newsy reports on Portman's "change of heart."

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