I suppose it’s a measure of how far the fight for gay equality has come that within minutes of Senator Rob Portman’s announcement that he now supports same-sex marriage, because he learned that his own son is gay, my inbox began filling with messages not of celebration, but of complaint. Readers, colleagues and friends wrote that they were pleased with his destination, but offended by the route there. Why, they asked, should it take the realization that a member of your family is affected to arrive at a position that reflects nothing more or less than a regard for equal rights and a belief in justice? And if same-sex marriage isn’t just—which is what the many lawmakers who oppose it evidently believe—then should your position on it change merely because it hits close to home and because opposition has a negative practical impact on someone dear to you? Those are great questions. Appropriate ones, too. But to a certain extent, they ignore human nature—the imperfections of it, the complexities of it—and they disregard how many people who support gay rights got to the place they now proudly inhabit. Because they grew up in a society that has portrayed, and in many instances still portrays, homosexuality in negative, stereotypical terms, they needed to be educated. They had a journey to make. And in as many cases as not, that journey involved an example smack in front of them that discredited the stereotypes and dispelled the fear. Maybe a college roommate was gay. Maybe an admired colleague. Maybe a brother, a sister, a daughter. Maybe a son. Ten years ago, an announcement like Portman’s wouldn’t have been greeted with the grousing in my inbox. It would simply have been embraced. His arc is identical to a great many people’s. It was just delayed, slower. Rather than quibble with it, I’d prefer to note how profoundly emblematic his announcement is. Coming right after the widely publicized amicus brief in favor of gay marriage that dozens of prominent Republicans signed, Portman’s remarks illustrate a rapid movement by, and rising tension within, a party that has largely allied itself with social conservatives and is bit by bit breaking with them on this issue. Seeing how this plays out over the next few years is going to be fascinating, though there’s no doubt how it will play out over the long haul. The majority of Republicans will be forced to publicly embrace same-sex marriage, because a huge majority of young Americans already do. There’s only one trajectory here—toward acceptance and equality—and to ignore that is to risk political marginalization and irrelevance. In any case, my question for and about Portman, a decent and thoughtful man I’ve known for many years, isn’t why it took a gay son to move him to his current stance, but whether it really took a gay son to do that, and whether he was here or almost here a while back, but just didn’t say so. What’s too infrequently noted or written is how many Republicans who aren’t on the party’s far right have privately, silently accepted and supported gays and lesbians but have stayed publicly mum, and articulated contrary positions, in the interests of political survival. A big part of what’s changing now isn’t their hearts. It’s their belief that they can be true to their hearts without committing political suicide, because America has made extraordinary progress, and because there’s no turning back.
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