Current Affairs

Son of US Senator who changed stance to support equal marriage reflects on coming out

Joseph McCormick March 25, 2013
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The gay son of Senator Rob Portman, has written a column reflecting on coming out as a college freshman, a decision which led to his father controversially reversing his decision to support equal marriage.

Will Portman wrote for the Yale Daily News about his decision to come out, and his father’s eventual support for equal marriage following discussions the two had on the issue.

Senator Portman who was among the original sponsors of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) last week announced that he had changed his anti-equal marriage stance.

His son Will wrote: “I came to Yale as a freshman in the fall of 2010 with two big uncertainties hanging over my head: whether my dad would get elected to the Senate in November, and whether I’d ever work up the courage to come out of the closet.

“I’d make stuff up when my suitemates and I would talk about our personal lives. I remember going to a dance in the Trumbull dining hall with a girl in my class and feeling guilty about pretending to be somebody I wasn’t. One night, I snuck up to the stacks in Sterling Library and did some research on coming out. The thought of telling people I was gay was pretty terrifying, but I was beginning to realize that coming out, however difficult it seemed, was a lot better than the alternative: staying in, all alone.”

He voiced concerns about coming out to friends from his home state of Ohio, and that he felt that he didn’t fit in with the “gay or straight culture”.

Will went on to say that he wrote a letter to his parents, who were “full of questions”, but “absolutely rock-solid supportive”, found that his best friend was also gay, an that family and friends all accepted him.

“I started talking to my dad more about being gay. Through the process of my coming out, we’d had a tacit understanding that he was my dad first and my senator a distant second. Eventually, though, we began talking about the policy issues surrounding marriage for same-sex couples.”

Writing that his father was under consideration to be Mitt Romney’s running mate for the presidential campaign, he said: “My dad told the Romney campaign that I was gay, that he and my mom were supportive and proud of their son, and that we’d be open about it on the campaign trail.

He said he was “relieved” that his father was not chosen for the campaign in the end.

“Some people have criticized my dad for waiting for two years after I came out to him before he endorsed marriage for gay couples. Part of the reason for that is that it took time for him to think through the issue more deeply after the impetus of my coming out. But another factor was my reluctance to make my personal life public.

“It has been strange to have my personal life in the headlines. I could certainly do without having my sexual orientation announced on the evening news, or commentators weighing in to tell me things like living my life honestly and fully is “harmful to [me] and society as a whole.” But in many ways it’s been a privilege to come out so publicly. Now, my friends at Yale and the folks in my dad’s political orbit in Ohio are all on the same page. They know two things about me that I’m very proud of, not just one or the other: that I’m gay, and that I’m Rob and Jane Portman’s son.”

He concludes by saying that he appreciates the “risk” his father has taken in order to “take a principled stand”.

“I’m proud of my dad, not necessarily because of where he is now on marriage equality (although I’m pretty psyched about that), but because he’s been thoughtful and open-minded in how he’s approached the issue, and because he’s shown that he’s willing to take a political risk in order to take a principled stand. He was a good man before he changed his position, and he’s a good man now, just as there are good people on either side of this issue today.”

The full column is available to read on the Yale Daily News website.

The Senator spoke at a Republican Party event last weekend, and said that the audience was “very respectful” of his change in stance.

The Supreme Court will later this month consider an appeal against Act, urged on by President Obama and even Bill Clinton, the former President who signed DOMA into US law.

As well as the appeal on DOMA this month, the Supreme Court will also consider overturning Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage in California.

Already, Portman has drawn criticism from religious groups who previously supported him, as Phil Burress of the Ohio group Citizens for Community Values, spoke out to say that he thought Portman was “a very troubled man”, and suggested that he was “distraught” over his son coming out.

In an interview, the United States House Speaker John Boehner said that he “can’t imagine” he would “ever” change from his current stance in opposition to equal marriage.

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