15 Mar 2013

I support gay marriage: top Republican’s change of heart

Top Republican Senator Rob Portman says he now supports same-sex marriage after his son came out as gay – and reveals David Cameron helped inspire his change of heart.

Senator Rob Portman (Getty)

He was one of the sponsors of the 1996 Defence of Marriage Act (Doma) which defined it as a bond between a man and a woman, and banned federal recognition of same-sex marriages.

But now Ohio Senator Rob Portman has undergone a dramatic change of heart. Writing for the Columbus Dispatch, he said he had been forced to rethink his position in a much deeper way: reassessing his faith, and conservative convictions he had held without question for years.

All this happened, he says, because his son Will, now a student at Yale, told his parents that he was gay. “His sexual orientation wasn’t something he chose; it was simply part of who he is”, writes Portman.

The senator played a key role in Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign against Barack Obama in 2012: he led the debate prep and was a front-runner to become Romney’s vice-presidential running mate.

According to CNN, he informed Romney and senior GOP campaign advisors that his son was gay: this, as the party’s conservative wing dragged issues like gender and sexuality into the heart of the campaign, despite efforts by the leadership to stick to far more popular messages about the economy.

Gay couples’ desire to marry doesn’t amount to a threat, but rather a tribute to marriage. Senator Rob Portman

But, he insisted, the declaration wasn’t the reason he was ultimately rejected as Romney’s running-mate in favour of Paul Ryan. Why? “Because they told me.” NBC’s Kasie Hunt says she has been told the fact played “no choice whatsoever” in the Vice-Presidential choice.

Now, though, Portman inisists that his conservative principles can exist perfectly naturally with his new stance on gay rights, citing the British prime minister as an inspiration.

David Cameron has said he supports allowing gay couples to marry because he is a conservative, not in spite of it. I feel the same way.” In a cogently argued piece, Portman says conservatives belive in the family as a bedrock for society, and should encourage people who want to make long term commitments to each other.

Conservative case for equality

“One way to look at it is that gay couples’ desire to marry doesn’t amount to a threat”, he says, “but rather a tribute to marriage.” In a country which is striving for a more perfect union, he declares, everyone should have a right to be happy.

He said he had consulted Christian clergy and the former vce-president Dick Cheney, whose daughter is openly gay: he also believes same-sex couples who marry in states where it is legal should be eligible for the same federal benefits as heterosexuals.

Portman is not the only leading Republican to argue that same sex marriage can be a conservative cause. Former presidential candidate Jon Huntsman declared his backing for the move last month, arguing it was essential for the party to modernise their beliefs.

“The marketplace of ideas will render us irrelevent and soon, if we are not honest about our time and place in history”, he wrote.

The issue will come to a head later this month when the US Supreme Court hears oral arguments on two key cases relating to same-sex marriage: one challenging the Defence of Marriage Act, the other seeking to overturn Proposition 8, the California measure which outlaws such unions.

American values, American hearts

Bill Clinton has already called on the Supreme Court to strike it down – arguing that it runs against American values of liberty and equality. “As the president who signed the act into law, I have come to believe that DOMA is contrary to those principles and, in fact, incompatible with our constitution”.

President Obama has petitioned the Supreme Court with testimony known as an amicus brief: so too have some 300 of America’s leading businesses, including Goldman Sachs. Their CEO Lloyd Blankfein says it’s a matter of civil liberties and good business.

Adhering to Doma, which denies equal federal benefits to same-sex couples, he argues, means firms have to discriminate against employees, or incur a financial burden by supplying them with equivalent benefits.

Senator Portman’s son Will – now a student at Yale – has welcomed his father’s public stance on Twitter. And the Log Cabin group of gay Republicans have followed suit: in a statement they encourage “his GOP colleagues in the Senate to join him on the right side of history”.

But the issue is not an easy one for the party. There are no other current Republican senators who have given the issue their open support: and this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference actually excluded the gay rights group GOProud from the main sessions.

But Portman’s conversion could open up a far more fundamental debate within the party: he has put forward a conservative and a Christian case for marriage equality. The debate can only get more interesting.

Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News