When the Political Is the Personal

Jim Burroway

March 25th, 2013

Those of us who have been out for a very long time can sometimes forget what a daunting chore coming out can be. Sen. Rob Portman’s (R-OH) son, Will Portman, was eighteen years old and a freshman at Yale when he decided to come out to everyone. The biggest chore was to his parents, then he went down a checklist of friends and relatives, some of whom he came out to in person, others via letter, email, phone call or Skype. And to add to that, imagine the pressure of being eighteen and having the emotional difficulties of having your coming out wrapped up in national politics:

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.

The following summer, the summer of 2012, my dad was under consideration to be Gov. Romney’s running mate. The rest of my family and I had given him the go-ahead to enter the vetting process. 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.

When he ultimately wasn’t chosen for the ticket, I was pretty relieved to have avoided the spotlight of a presidential campaign. 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.

Now that Will Portman is twenty and a junior, most of that reluctance appears to have melted away, if this essay in the Yale Daily News is any indication. Will is rightly proud of his father for handling his coming out the way he did. It can be complicated for any young man to navigate, and given the larger picture it seems to me that father and son handled it pretty well. “It has been strange to have my personal life in the headlines,” Will writes, of which we can only imagine. I wonder how many other nineteen year old sons of U.S. Senators would be able to go through all this pressure.

As for how that impacted the Romney campaign’s decision not to go with Portman for the number two slot and carry with it the key swing state of the election, that story hasn’t been told. But every campaign has its Primary Colors and Game Change, and its only a matter of time before this story gets written as well.


March 25th, 2013

Excellent Column!

Some parts that stuck out to me:

“That was the beginning of the end of feeling ashamed about who I was.”

Lines like that will never cease to lose their impact.

But even more profound:

“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.

We’re all the products of our backgrounds and environments, and the issue of marriage for same-sex couples is a complicated nexus of love, identity, politics, ideology and religious beliefs. We should think twice before using terms like “bigoted” to describe the position of those opposed to same-sex marriage or “immoral” to describe the position of those in favor, and always strive to cultivate humility in ourselves as we listen to others’ perspectives and share our own.”

I give full credit to Will for Sen. Portman’s change in position. It wasn’t JUST because he has a gay son. It’s because that gay son was the catalyst and the interaction that brought him to this point.


March 25th, 2013

I’m very impressed by this article, because there has been a lot of head-scratching about motivations that were difficult to test.

There are a number of reasons to remain critical of Portman – not least of which is the “states-rights” approach he’s taken with regard to gay marriage that would still require his son to leave the state of his home to get married, and would likely leave him and his husband as legal strangers when they go home to visit the Portman family. I find it difficult to square that outcome with Portmans much-applauded (and overstated) but highly qualified support of gay marriage, and it feels like constructing a defensible posture instead of embracing the issue wholly. Nor does it do anything to soothe the bruised feelings of constituents who feel that their representative didn’t do enough soul-searching until the chickens came home to roost.

That said, this article makes a crucial aspect of the head-scratching – the two-year delay on Portman’s part – a little clearer, and far more justifiable: protecting the son’s privacy, which to me is entirely reasonable (can you imagine if he’d come flying out the door the next day – it would have been like tossing his 18 yr old son to the media wolfpack). In that regard, we get a little clearer picture of the dynamics at play between son and father, and between father and public, and the more we know (and less we suppose by passing through personal filters), the saner, and clearer, the conversations around this can be.

I continue to have tremendous respect for Will Portman. Coming out is more difficult for some than others. Being raised in a conservative family (or being conservative yourself) usually means having a “game of Life” (go to college, meet a girl, get married, have kids) embedded so deeply, it’s as obvious as gravity. Realizing that one’s sexual difference might mean that these expectations may never come to pass, is excruciating. Coming out to potentially oppositional parents (mine were die-hard liberals, and I was still terrified) is rough as hell. Doing so in a famous, public family, where your father is dependent on the public’s perception to keep his job… well, I can’t even imagine.

I didn’t “do the math” until I was 24, and I didn’t come out until I was 26. The self-possession, confidence, and courage of Will Portman, to me, reflects tremendous character. Even if we question Sen. Portman’s “gay marriage conversion”, he gets credit for raising a fine, strong son, and that’s not nothing.

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