Much was made last week of U.S. Senator Rob Portman's public about-face on the issue of gay rights, specifically same-sex marriage, after weighing two years of discussions he'd been having with his college-age gay son.
Critics couldn't believe this bedrock Republican from Cincinnati -- it doesn't get much more bedrock than that in Ohio for the GOP -- turned away from political stand and prior votes on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which defined marriage as between a man and a woman. Supporters called his public coming-out in favor of same-sex marriage a welcome change of heart, if not an outright act of courage. Some are asking the same question running through my mind.
I don't doubt this was a difficult decision for Portman, who opted for the Columbus Dispatch op-ed page to announce his change of heart. Anyone who knows politics must know Portman was fully aware this would open up a storm raised by some of his closest supporters, and those in the true-believer world of today's partisan politics that measures political courage only when it agrees with their views.
But there's a nagging voice in my head that challenges the use of the word "courage" in this case. It comes not because Portman changed his position; we should be adult enough to know by now that life isn't black-and-white and rigid positions on each and every issue lead to the type of debate marking the unworkable Washington today. What bothers me is Portman's guiding reason for changing his mind: that on considering the life his son would have under the rules he's been voting for all this time, it was time for a change.
Essentially, what Rob Portman just said is that the experience of gay sons and lesbian daughters of other American families wasn't worth his deeper thought. That is, until his son came out and raised the issue.
It makes me wonder about the confidence we can have in politicians who decide on the rules the rest of us live by, but when those rules impact their lives or the lives of their loved ones then all bets are off.
It raises the question those of us of a Vietnam-era generation asked in the 60s and 70s: if the old men sending us to war had to send their own sons to war, would that decision come so easily when Presidents asked to deploy troops to harm's way? There's no military draft anymore forcing young men and women to serve but many will argue the elite leadership of our country doesn't share in the same sacrifice of watching their children come home wounded or in flag-draped caskets.
It is a question many citizens ask on learning members of Congress don't have to live under the same health care reforms the rest of the nation does, or when the exemptions granted big companies and unions don't trickle down to the companies or small unions we're not connected with.
I'm not unhappy with Portman's decision. I prefer a Libertarian view; what role the government should play in defining marriage to begin with? The accounts of domestic partners (what a clunky phrase) turned away from caring for their loved ones during hospital or hospice stays, losing their homes or even parental rights to estranged family members, is disturbing and despicable.
I'm one of those dinosaurs who believe marriage is a religious process, but enough of a modernist that choosing one's life partner is personal. Having the government stick it's nose under the bedroom door is inherently offensive. Those who write the laws are smart enough to come up with thousands and thousands of pages , and I'd rather see the lawyers who come up with these systems figure out a better way to extend rights and benefits to those we choose to partner up with -- regardless of sex. Marriage license? We don't use gender as a limit for doctors, accountants, veterinarians, truck drivers or beauty shop workers.
An issue for the courts, the President and Congress to settle. But we deserve to have faith in the men and women charged with making these decisions, faith that they are acting in the best interests of the country and in our best interest. Some will say if it takes a son, daughter or spouse to get politicians to vote their hearts that's good enough. I'd be a lot happier knowing they are doing so from the start with us getting that consideration.