I live in a state where if I ever decided to get gay married, I could get gay married. A lot of people believe that civil unions should be “enough” for gay people, but marriage equality isn’t just about the symbolism of exchanging rings and having fabulous wedding receptions. There are all sorts of tax exemptions and privileges you’re missing out on. If I ever fell in love with an Italian guy, for instance, I couldn’t bring said Italian dude to the States like you heterosexual people can. Having the legality of “marriage” is about not being a second class citizen. Civil unions and domestic partnerships are great and everything, but it basically means you will be allowed to eat in the same room as all the straight people IF you sit in the gay corner and eat off the “special” pink plates.
In an op-ed piece that dropped over the weekend in The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio Senator Rob Portman came out so to speak in favor of gay marriage. Two years ago, we learn, Portman’s son Will announced he was gay, and that led the conservative Senator Portman to completely flip the script on his views of marriage. “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. That isn’t how I’ve always felt,” the senator wrote.
Coming from a prominent leader of the Republican party and as the only sitting Republican senator to come out in support of marriage equality, Portman’s announcement strategically comes at a moment when the Supreme Court is just weeks away from hearing arguments in the case against DOMA (which Portman voted for) that could finally open up marriage equality once and for all.
But what I found most compelling in his reasoning was the way he cited his conservative values as a reason to support gay marriage rather than as a reason to push against it, which is what we are so used to hearing from the conservative establishment:
British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he supports allowing gay couples to marry because he is a conservative, not in spite of it. I feel the same way. We conservatives believe in personal liberty and minimal government interference in people’s lives.
And this, a little paragraph that shakes the anti-gay haze floating above conservative parties in America, is Portman’s bid for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2016.
Most of the conversation about Portman’s stunning announcement has been that it was extremely self-involved. Writing for New York, Jonathan Chait thought that Portman having:
…a gay son is convenient for the gay-rights cause. But why should any of us come away from his conversion trusting that Portman is thinking on any issue about what’s good for all of us, rather than what’s good for himself and the people he knows?
The only reason Portman came out in favor of gay marriage, for Chait anyway, is that the issue now effects him directly. So instead of thinking about what would be best for the greatest number of people, in Chait’s view Portman flip-flops because the issue now effects him personally. But where does that leave us if our elected officials are only voting on issues that touch them directly, rather than always and constantly thinking about the broader needs of the American people?
I’m glad that Portman came out of the closet in support of gay marriage as the first sitting Republican senator to do so, and I’m sure he’s not the only senator to have a gay child. Gays are everywhere! Symbolically, though, it definitely sends a message to the Republican party base as well as the Supreme Court about where the conversation on marriage is headed in America, even though human rights are not really something that should be up for a vote. But I still can’t tell if Portman’s announcement is a coup for gay rights, a brilliant piece of political theater or both. What do you think?