This morning, the news spread like wild fire that Senator Robert Portman (R-OH) has formally endorsed marriage equality. Like so many other allies, his change of heart (he had previously been against marriage equality) happened as a result of a very personal connection. In Portman's case, it was his son coming out as gay privately two years ago. Ideally this change of heart would happen from talking to people about their experiences with homophobia, not being able to marry under the law, and the problems associated with those inequities, or simple empathy. The fact of the matter is, however, that all too often it is not until a particular issue hits very close to home that we have our eyes opened and form a more sensible opinion on the matter at hand.
What is important here is that Senator Portman is a Republican and most of the opposition to marriage equality has come from his party. Even so, the GOP is ever so slowly shifting on this issue. Despite the strong influence of the religious right, there is a growing proportion of Republicans who support legal equality for same-sex couples. Earlier this year, many prominent Republicans - many of whom are former congress members, governors, pundits, etc. - signed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of equality. Younger Republicans also have a more inclusive mindset, which will have a growing affect on the party as a whole moving forward. Two sitting congress members openly support the repeal of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. And now there is Senator Portman, who is the first sitting U.S. Republican senator to endorse marriage equality. To be fair, his endorsement is not exactly complete. He is on record as saying it is better to build a consensus through the democratic process so that "enduring change is forged" versus "judicial intervention" which would (in his estimation) circumvent the democratic process.
As one might expect, Senator Portman is already getting grief from the more socially conservative elements of the conservative movement. A group called "Government is Not God PAC" said in a statement that his gay son will get AIDS, as though that is an inevitability. Bryan Fischer, director of analysis for the so-called American Family Association (considered by many to be a hate group) tweeted the following: "@ gay son, SSM: A father can still love a son who robs a bank without changing his mind about the morality of bank robbing," as though being gay is the same as robbing a bank. Some people will just never learn.
The Republican party being what it is, I do not expect the flood gates to open releasing an avalanche of sitting GOP politicians supporting marriage equality. The countervailing forces are simply to strong for that to be a realistic hope. Let us remember that just this past Summer the GOP platform was strongly against marriage equality. However, maybe this will induce a trickle of support from other GOP politicians and voters. Given existing support, this may tip the balance at what is already a critical juncture in the fight for LGBT equality. If nothing else, Senator Portman's statement reopens the dialogue here an America. This is another opportunity for hearts and minds to be changed, an opportunity to bring more people onto the right side of history, another opportunity to bring America closer to truly being the land of the free.