Sen. Portman’s conversion

Polls show that about half of Americans support gay marriage — and the number is growing

Rob Portman
Rob Portman

Rob Portman came by his change of heart on same-sex marriage in a typical way: A loved one said he is homosexual and has always been that way. But it matters less how Ohio’s junior senator came to believe in legal equity in marriage than that he got there.

Mr. Portman had been a vocal opponent of allowing gay couples to wed. As a congressman in 1996, he sponsored the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman and denied same-sex couples federal benefits and protections. In 1999, he voted to ban adoptions by gay couples in the District of Columbia.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this month in a case that could overturn the marriage law. That adds context to Mr. Portman’s announcement in an op-ed column in the Columbus Dispatch last week that “I believe all of our sons and daughters ought to have the same opportunity to experience the joy and stability of marriage.”

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Just over two years ago, Will Portman told his parents that he is gay. That admission undoubtedly took courage.

Senator Portman says that revelation caused him “to think through my position in a much deeper way.” A new dimension was added to what had been an intellectual exercise informed by faith and politics.

Mr. Portman discovered what most other people discover in that situation: that love trumps politics and can lead to a re-evaluation of faith. He began to think about gay rights from the perspective of a parent who wants his child to have the same opportunity for happiness and fulfillment as every other child. That’s a powerful incentive.

Other Republican politicians — but none of Mr. Portman’s Senate GOP colleagues — have said they changed their minds about gay marriage because of personal experience. Former vice president Dick Cheney, whose daughter married her lesbian partner last year, makes an exception to his conservative credo on this topic.

Former Ohio attorney general Jim Petro, who learned in 2000 that his daughter is gay, wavered on gay-rights issues for years. In 2012, after Mr. Petro’s daughter married her partner in Massachusetts, he said he had decided that same-sex unions were “reasonable” and “good.”

More than 100 prominent Republicans, including former governors and members of President George W. Bush’s administration, submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the Supreme Court in support of the lawsuit aimed at striking down a California ballot initiative that bans gay marriage. On the Democratic side, former secretary of State — and potential 2016 presidential candidate — Hillary Clinton announced her support of gay marriage on Monday.

Cynics might suggest that Mr. Portman’s conversion was made possible by the Republican Party’s discovery that it’s hard to win national elections if you alienate gays, Latinos, women, and poor voters. Polls show that about half of Americans support gay marriage — and the number is growing.

Critics might also argue that before he learned that his son is gay, Mr. Portman was willing to deny basic equality to a large class of Americans. But what matters most now is that Mr. Portman has decided to embrace the people he once disdained.

Mr. Portman says states, not the federal government, should define what constitutes marriage. A group called Freedom to Marry Ohio hopes to put an issue on this November’s ballot that would end the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. The senator could help with that effort.