Let there be no cheers for Rob Portman.
The Ohio senator is, pardon the tautology, a conservative Republican and last week, he did something conservative Republicans do not do. He came out for same-sex marriage. This is a man whose anti-gay bona fides were so pronounced that his 2011 selection as commencement speaker at the University of Michigan law school prompted an uproar among the graduates, many of whom signed a letter protesting his appearance as an insult to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.
Yet, there he was, telling CNN he’s had “a change of heart.” And what prompted this? Well, as it turns out, the senator made his U-turn because of Will.
That would be Will Portman, 21, who came out to his parents two years ago. His son, the senator said, explained to them that his sexuality “was not a choice and that that’s just part of who he is.” As a result, said Portman, “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.”
It was, make no mistake, an act of paternal love and empathy and deserves to be celebrated on that basis. He did the only thing a good father could have done. And yet, if Portman’s change of mind warms the heart, it also, paradoxically, illustrates the moral cowardice so often found at the heart of social conservatism.
Look, the senator’s son is doubtless a fine and admirable young man. But with all due respect to his son, to heck with his son. This is not about Will Portman. It’s far bigger than that.
So one can’t help but be frustrated and vexed by the senator’s inability to “get it” until “it” included his son. Will explained to him that his sexuality “was not a choice”? Lovely. But was the senator not listening when all those other gay men and lesbians tried to tell him the exact same thing?
Apparently not. Like Dick Cheney, father of a lesbian daughter, Portman changed his view because the issue became personal. Which suggests a glaring lack of the courage and vision needed to put oneself into someone else’s shoes, imagine one’s way inside someone else’s life. These are capabilities that often seem to elude social conservatives.
Small wonder: If you allow yourself to see the world from someone else’s vantage point, there is a chance it will change your own. Can’t have that.
So instead we have this. And by extension of the “logic”: Here, we must wait on Herman Cain to adopt a Mexican child before he sees how offensive it is to suggest electrocuting Mexicans at the border. And if Michele Bachmann would only have an affair with a Muslim, she might stop seeing terrorists on every street corner.
Tellingly, Portman’s change of heart elicited mainly an embarrassed silence from his ideological soulmates who, 10 years ago, would have been on him like paparazzi on a Kardashian. But then, 10 years ago, gay rights was still an open question. Ten years later, that question is closing with startling speed, as in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll that finds support for same-sex marriage at a record high. Change is coming, gathering momentum like an avalanche.
And once again, conservatives will stand rebuked by history, be left on the platform by progress. Or else, split the difference, do the right thing for the wrong reasons like Rob Portman.
No, you cannot condemn a man for loving his child.
But true compassion and leadership require the ability to look beyond the narrow confines of one’s own life, to project into someone else’s situation and to want for them what you’d want for your own. Portman’s inability to do that created hardship for an untold number of gay men and lesbians.
Each of them was also someone’s child.
(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via email at email@example.com.)
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File