The Politics and Humanity of Gay Marriage

I rarely write about social policy.  In terms of public policy I think it generally pales in comparison to the myriad issues we face as a nation.  But in thinking about everything on a macro level, you sometimes lose sight of the human component of all policy issues.

This morning, Ohio Senator Rob Portman, a conservative Republican and proponent of the Defense of Marriage Act, announced that he has reversed his position on gay marriage and believes that it should be legalized.  His rationale?  His son Will is gay.

Portman said that finding out his son is gay “allowed me to think about this issue from a new perspective and that’s as a dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister have.” 

Conservatives have long defended what they call “traditional marriage” and decried the supposed perversion of the institution by the gay community.  They argue that legalizing gay marriage will have significant social and cultural consequences extending beyond the marriage itself – a breakdown of the traditional family structure, a detrimental impact on children, even a slippery slope towards legalizing polygamy or bestiality.

But what conservatives miss is the human component.  I’ve always wondered if Rick Santorum would have the same views on gay marriage if he found out his son or daughter is gay.  I would hope that every Republican politician would have the same reaction Portman has.  As he put it, “The only difference was that now we had a more complete picture of the son we love.”

It’s great to see Portman make such a strong and public turn on this issue, a public turn that his son, Will, recommended.  According to CNN, Will Portman “helped [Senator Portman] work through his decision to announce his change in position on gay marriage and blessed the idea of publicly announcing Will’s sexuality.”

My hope is that this is only the beginning.  Portman is now a leader on this issue, in a party that has opposed change wholeheartedly.  But it shouldn’t take a relative’s homosexuality for other members of the Republican Party to move as well.  They should see the story of Will Portman as a reflection of the human aspect of the gay community’s struggle around the country.

It also makes sense from a political perspective, though that should not entirely be the rationale.  The Republican Party must become more modern and reach out to the younger generation, and that means letting go of archaic positions like opposing gay marriage. 

Public support for legalization has seen an unprecedented spike in recent years, from 27% in 1996 to 50% in 2012, and those numbers are higher among younger generations.  If the Republican Party wants to remain a mainstream party, changing its tune and its tone on gay marriage is a good place to start.

But as I said, we should never lose sight of the human component.  Politicians and voters alike should determine their position by using Portman’s rationale as a framework.  What would you believe about gay marriage if you found out your son or daughter was gay? 

My hope is that if more people think about it this way they’ll come to the same conclusion Portman did: “The only difference was that now we had a more complete picture of the son we love.”