The Portal of Change

I was seventeen when I came to the belief that gays should be allowed to be married. It was the late 90’s. This was not a mainstream view at the time. In my high school English class, we had to write a persuasive essay on our view on one of a number of topics, including this one, and there were three people who wrote against gay marriage and myself who wrote in favor of it. The teacher was a born-again Christian. I did not need a gay sibling or friend to sway me on the issue. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t like most of the openly gay people I knew at the time. Since I was seventeen, my views on abortion, the death penalty, foreign policy, taxation, spending, have all changed at least once. My support for gay marriage never has. Not even when I became a Republican in college.

I’d like to think that I have some credibility on this issue.

For Bob Portman, it did (seem to) require a gay son to come around on the issue of gay marriage. It would be better if such things were not required. It may be, as comment after comment on OTB has suggested, evidence of the moral inferiority or bigotedness of Republicans that this is so. But the nature of the Republican Party is not news. A staunchly conservative senator coming out against his party on this hot-button issue, however, is. And it is a positive development.

Not long ago, erstwhile supporter of gay marriage Laura Bush asked to be removed from TV ads in support of the issue. Like Portman, Dick Cheney has a gay offspring and came around on the issue. But Cheney has been tepid on the issue, even after retiring from public life. Laura Bush has never held public office. Portman is a sitting US senator with (until now?) a real potential future in the party. Rather than being tepid, Portman wrote an advocacy piece in the Columbus Dispatch.

Whether Portman is an opportunist, a bigot who only opened his mind due to personal circumstance, or whatever, really doesn’t matter. Honestly, doing what he (and Cheney) have done when finding out your child is gay is not the only course of action. But even leaving that aside, this is a positive development and I’ve been frustrated at much of the response focused on party rather than the issue at hand.

When it comes to this issue, there are three things I want: First, I want gay marriage to become a reality in all fifty states. Second, I want it to not be the hot-button issue it is right now. I won’t get what I want completely on either front, I don’t think, but on the latter point I do think we can get to the point where Democrats are united and Republicans take a live-and-let-live attitude to make room for forward-thinking politicians not from the South and other select regions. This is why we need Portman and even Dick Cheney. In fact, the more historically conservative the better. The bigger cover created for right-leaners as possible, the better. The more conservative leaders creating that cover (“Hey, fellow Republican, I’m with Dick Cheney on this issue!”) the better.

One of the biggest weapons in our arsenal on this issue is basic decency. While the Portman/Cheney route may not be the only course of action upon finding out about a gay son or daughter, it is the decent one. Over and over again, we need to be asking opponents of gay marriage how they would respond in the shoes of a parent with a gay child. Would they want them to be able to be married? Would they want them to be able to have families to supply them with grandchildren. A great many will remain obstinate, but over time I believe that will become the stated reason why many others won’t. The more we want to see opposition to gay marriage as an untenable and unseemly view, the more we need unlikely people to come around. Regardless of how it happens.

We’re going to win this, at least to some extent. Both in terms of law and the acceptance of that law. I’d rather it be sooner rather than later. It won’t be soon, but I don’t think we have to wait for the younger generation to be the bulk of the population before it can be relegated to, for lack of a better term, oldperson-think or fundie-think to oppose it.

Until we’ve won this, the doorways to changing your mind need to be left as wide open as possible.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. There is plenty of good commentary and high quality snark about Portman. I’m not sure there is anything that hasn’t been said. What strikes me most is how some people make this kind of change based solely on knowing a close family who is gay. Conservatives love to mock the empathy. Surely judges shouldn’t have it and it is such a squishy emotion only fit for liberals. But if people like Portman or Cheney had any fishin empathy they might have been able to figure this out without having a child be gay. Good for Portman but most people with a basic set of human emotions came to his realization a long time ago. When they admit to knowing someone who had an abortion or can’t get health care or needed food stamps for a few months while they got on their feet then maybe we could really get somewhere.

    • The thing is that I know a lot of empathetic people that are on the wrong side of this issue. A fair number of people in the right side of this issue now we’re in the wrong side not long ago. They got to know people who were gay or reconceptualized what it meant to be gay.

      I mean I guess you can say “it’s all bullspit unless you also agree with us on these otherissues” but I really don’t think that gets us anywhere. Conservatives on the whole do have an empathy deficit in comparison with liberals, but it’s far less clear to me than “empathy means they see what I see.”

      Anyway, today we have a prominent conservative who is on the right side of an important issue when previously he wasn’t and it frustrates me that the important part to so many is “still an ass hole.”

      • Good for Portman, i mean that . I’m sure what he has done means a lot to his son and its a good step forward. I don’t disagree with what you are saying about empathy, it isn’t some miracle emotion or tool for super insight. However i still think that if all it took was his son being gay to change his mind then it would be good if people like Portman spent a lot more time seriously hearing what other peoples sons and daughters are saying. Plenty of people have gay kids and don’t change their minds or become more hard hearted and bitter against gays.

        • I think you overestimate the imagination of most people and underestimate the extreme difference between thinking about people you don’t know well and then being confronted with it being your child. I think it’s important to appeal to empathetic imagination and I advocate it, but it’s a lot of heavy lifting to convince people on that basis. Which is why it has taken so long to get to where things are.

          • People have to want to empathize. Nobody can make them do it. If people want to hear others and search out different voices they will. If they don’t want to know about “them” then they won’t even try. So i guess that is an agreement with what you are saying.

          • Hmmm, no, I think we are still pretty far apart. Which probably means I am not communicating well.

          • (Not saying you would agree with me if I were, just that I don’t think I am. Man, I need to get back to moving boxes.)

          • I hate moving. I feel your pain he says with amused irony.

        • To add on about empathy i’m obviously coming at this as a liberal type. What i’ve heard a billion times (only an approximation) is conservatives railing against people being lazy, wanting a handout or the gov to take care of them, not believing in hard work etc etc etc. I know you are familiar with all the stuff conservatives heave out. Maybe if conservatives tried to think and empathize a bit maybe the conversations would be less bitter and riddled with insults. Does that mean C’s would become Liberals…no of course not but it would go along way to being able to communicate and focus on solutions. And it would at least sound like conservatives didn’t look down on all the lesser folk.

      • I don’t necessarily think it’s an empathy deficit so much as how one defines the Other. That is, for some people the Other remains alien and unknowable until that Other is revealed to not be an Other at all. I try to think that conservatives are empathetic, but have simply been conditioned to view otherness in a different fashion than most liberals.

        • I think what you’re saying does point to conservatives (or Republicans) not being bereft of empathy (or that liberals don’t have shortcomings when it comes to same). But I think there’s still a gap.

  2. I think supporters of SSM should join Will in praising Senator Portman. Ought he have reached this position on his own without needing the confrontation with his own son? Of course, but he DID come around and get to the better position on the issue. I needed a confrontation from someone to focus my own thoughts on the issue too (at roughly the same time as Will, coincidentally). I should have worked it all out on my own ab initio but I did work it all out.

    So thank you for your support, Senator, and may your son bring home a fine son-in-law for you one day. Maybe they’ll even present you with grandchildren.

    • I know you’re right on one hand, but on the other I’m feeling like it’s a really low bar to praise Portman for 1. not disowning his son or 2. sending him off to one of those pray away the gay gulags.

      • It may be a low bar, but Alan Keyes couldn’t climb over it.

  3. “Conservatives on the whole do have an empathy deficit in comparison with liberals”

    Wow – you really believe that? What a sad small airless echo chamber you must live in. I think one aspect of empathy is eschewing sweeping stereotypes, so look in the mirror.

    • Will is a conservative. So that’s point one.

      Point two is that actual psychological research has at least tentatively confirmed that liberals do value empathy more than conservatives. On the other hand, conservatives tend to value order more than liberals. You can walk through any cubicle farm and pretty reliably pick out the libs from the cons just by how neat their desks are.

      I could go on, since there is a growing literature emerging on this issue but, since one aspect of conservatism is a need for epistemic closure, it would likely be a waste of time.

  4. This may not be entirely germane to the issue of gay marriage but here’s how I came around on the issue. I knew two elderly women who’d lived together for much of their adult lives. I have no idea if they were lovers: they went to our church.

    This much I do know: as one became quite ill, the situation got harder. One of the deacons was a lawyer and helped out. It was a nightmare dealing with the fallout, arranging for powers of attorney for the other woman.

    The story does not have a happy ending. The woman died. Getting her estate through the courts was worse than the illness. Married people? There’s a nice convenient process for them, no big problems, no deacon lawyer doing pro bono work to represent the rights of the surviving partner.

    All that love and happiness and domestic bliss stuff, sure, these days, we can all get on board with gays and lesbians getting married on that basis. But such justification is irrelevant to my point. Marriage is a contract: it comes with rights and obligations. Families are thus created, a concept in law, a fundamental construct of society. This isn’t so a matter of tolerance — it’s a matter of rights in law for life partners: wills, creation of joint tenancy, all the gritty details of survivorship.

  5. I agree that Portman’s conversion should be praised and welcomed with open arms. This is a time to be generous. One of the things that makes a conservative a conservative is the need for epistemic closure. This is reflected, for example, in the statement: “There are absolutes. There is right and there is wrong. There are objective truths.” from the Traditional Values Coalition, as quoted in Russell’s post today.

    Sure, there may be absolute truths, right and wrong, absolutes. But that’s not to say that you necessarily have access to those truths; that what you were taught in church, or by your parents, or derive from your moral intuitions (biases? it can be hard to tell the difference from the inside) is an accurate reflection of those verities.

    An foundational intellectual virtue is humility, the attitude that accepts that your current beliefs may, in fact, be wrong, and a willingness to re-evaluate same in the light of new evidence. In that regard, Senator Portman has proven himself head-and-shoulders above the typical CPAC attendee.

  6. I wonder how much of conservative attitudes toward gays stems from the early reporting on AIDS.

    I remember it clearly; and it pushed the notion of promiscuity:
    Many stories, even though not all of them, depicted gay men in a negative light and helped to foster negative stereotypes once again. For instance, lots of the articles made connections between homosexuality and promiscuity. “Most cases involve homosexual men who have had multiple and frequent sexual encounters with different partners, as many as 10 sexual encounters each night up to four times a week” (Streitmatter, 54). According to another article that was published in the prestigious New York Times, “the median number of lifetime male sexual partners for homosexual men who did not have the syndrome was 524, while the comparable figure for men who had the syndrome was 1,160″ (Streitmatter, 54). These numbers are alarmingly high and made me wonder where exactly the New York Times got these numbers from. Personally, I do not believe that those numbers were an accurate representation of the average homosexual man. Certainly, articles like the one cited above sent a very clear message cocnerning gay men to its readers.

    Before this, the closet was the rule. For people who didn’t know much, this was the first in-your-face awareness of the gay community; and it was a horrid window to see people through.

    What really astonishes me is how the closet door opened to reveal so many regular folk, living regular lives, doing good in their communities; caring for neighbors, for the neighborhood, and for their partners. The transformation from the above horrifying stereotypes to my brother and his upcoming wedding is wonderful.

  7. I heartily endorse the views expressed in the OP.

    If we only welcome the support of people who take our position because they came to the “right conclusion” the “right way,” then my own parents wouldn’t make the cut. I’m happy to have the Senator’s support, and I have no time for people who think they can do without it.

    • I agree.

      I’d also add that a lot of us, a lot of the time, are helped quite a bit in determining what’s right and wrong based on how those determinations affect our own interests or the interests of those we love and care about.

      • Thirded. Openness and magnanimity in victory is the best way to securing said victory.

        • And, forgive me if I’m wrong, it doesn’t appear obvious to me that the victory has actually happened yet.

          Sure, the “victory is inevitable” part has happened, but not the victory itself.

          It seems to me that we should at least wait to win before throwing people off the bandwagon for showing up for reasons that involve stuff that made them change their minds.

  8. I came to support gay marriage around 1996 or 1997, shortly after I graduated from college but before I went to grad school for my MA. (I’m in grad school now for my PHD, and I hope to defend May, but that came later).

    Even though I reached the decision, I was silent about it and didn’t take the chance to tell my family or most of my friends how I felt. Of course, by the early 2000’s, it became a “safe(r)” position to have. Therefore, I can’t claim any bravery or courage in my support for ssm.

    But back to my original decision to support it. I did it more on the grounds that it was unfair and not as an acceptance of gay people. At the time, was still bigoted, in my own way, against gay people, believing that fundamentally homosexuality was wrong but that it was also wrong to deny them the right to marry. Strangely, having a gay sister who had been at that time in a committed relationship for about 17 years (now, it’s about 33 years), did not by itself do much to help me combat my bigotry. I still “loved her but hated the sin.”

    It was only in the next few years that certain events and a certain amount of introspection challenged my bigotry, and I saw the light (and also grew closer to my sister).

    I guess what I’m saying is that personal relationships might help, but it can hinder (or at least have null effect) on the policies that one supports. I”m also saying that at least for me, openness on legal equality came before personal acceptance (not that gay people need my acceptance).

  9. I never opposed gay marriage. I remember it first became an issue I was aware of in college when the Massachusetts courts did whatever they did in favor of it. At the time, I’d say my support was tepid… I agreed that they should have the right to get married but didn’t really think much of the whole thing.

    That changed when talking with a lesbian colleague of mine about their plans to move. She mentioned some of the different New England states but not all of them, finishing her list with, “…Those are the only ones we can really consider.”
    “What? Why?” I responded.
    “Well, they’re the only ones where our relationship status won’t be called into question.”

    It got a lot realer then and my support much stronger.

  10. … and contrary to my Representative Tim Huelskamp, who when asked if he would reconsider his position if his own son came out as gay could only say, I support traditional marriage.

    I really can’t stand that guy.

  11. Psst…

    According to your official bio, Will Truman turned 17 in 1993, not the late 90s.

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