Emily Timbol

In Defense of Rob Portman


Four days ago Ohio Senator Rob Portman wrote an op-ed for The Columbus Dispatch. In it he explained his change of heart on gay marriage, brought on by his son’s coming out. My initial response to this was, “good for him! Hopefully this will make a difference.”

Turns out my reaction was rare. Most gay rights advocates on the left, like me, had other things to say.

“Here’s a guy who seemed to have no problem supporting an agenda that discriminates generally, and against LGBT individuals specifically, until someone who was about as close to him as any person could be was effected by that very agenda. Now he wants to change the rules.”

“What kind of person makes a public stand on a ‘moral’ issue and then changes their position when it impacts someone in their own family?”

“People like Portman stridently work against other people’s interests until a crucial moment, both shaming and enlightening, when it becomes their interest too.”

These angry response op-eds and blogs initially baffled me. How could anyone be upset at someone who changed a position to match their own?

Then I thought about it some more, and one word began to stand out. Anger. It made more sense. People on the left are angry. LGBT citizens, and activists are angry. And I don’t blame them. I’m angry too. I’ve been angry, and upset, and hurt, and frustrated, since I first started working on the fight for equality.


Because I had to start somewhere.

There are some people who are born and raised to have the political and religious beliefs they have now. Personally, I believe this is most people. The majority of people that are raised conservative will remain conservative, and those raised with one faith will likely keep it. I’m in the minority. I was raised conservative, both politically and religiously, and after college (not because of it, I wasn’t brainwashed by liberal professors) I moved to the left. My political beliefs changed, and while I’m still rooted in Christ, my view of what that looks like has evolved.

Like Rob Portman, it took someone close to me coming out to challenge my beliefs about equality and religion.

What so many people on the left need to know, is that there is nothing wrong with this. In fact, this is the only real way that the majority of people change. For anything. Not just LGBT issues. Many Americans only begin to care passionately about something once they are personally affected by it.

They march against cancer when their son is diagnosed with Leukemia.

They join MADD when their daughter is killed by a drunk driver.

They become advocates for equality when their best friend comes out.

Famous gay rights activist Harvey Milk knew the power that personal relationships can have on change. That’s why one of his most famous quotes was this:

Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do, you will feel so much better”

Here’s what I wish more people on the left understood; I get that you’re angry. I’m angry too. But what I realized, is that being angry at people does no good. I’m close with people on both sides. So I’ve seen first hand that yelling, screaming, name calling, and attacking, does not elicit change. It just drives a further wedge. What does change people is love, caring, and kindness.

That’s why so many people, like me, and Rob Portman, were changed when our friends and family came out. Because these were people we loved, who loved us. Suddenly, we realized that all that anger we’d previously had towards something we didn’t understand, was really directed at someone we loved. See the difference? Anger drove us into the same beliefs and patterns, but love changed.

I’m glad that Rob Portman is now an advocate, and I don’t believe it’s, “too little, too late.”

It’s never too late to decide to love.

2 Responses to In Defense of Rob Portman

  1. > Like Rob Portman, it took someone close to me coming out to challenge my beliefs about equality and religion.

    Why should it? Is it so hard to empathize beyond your own two feet? How callous does a person have to be to think so little of his kin? Forty years of the gay rights movements, dozens of documentaries, entertainers, personal stories and biopics weren’t enough to make the man think?

    He’s not some Joe Schmo ranting at happy hour. He’s a senator, ostensibly among the best of us. The most informed, the most willing to deeply consider any particular issue. But not this. No, when it came to gays, it was full-score bigotry until the gayness came from his own loins.

    > Many Americans only begin to care passionately about something once they are personally affected by it.

    Except he passionately cared before. A passionate, anti-gay bigot. Most people don’t have an opinion at all before the precipitating event. He was legislating his.

    > So I’ve seen first hand that yelling, screaming, name calling, and attacking, does not elicit change.

    It does, but not how you think. You can’t force someone to change their mind, but you can certainly shove the issue front and center until they’re forced to consider it and put themselves on record in public. No amount of love and caring made Reagan acknowledge and devote money to HIV treatment in the late 80s; it was holy hell raised by gays and the medical establishment until the problem couldn’t be ignored any more. Activism is not a touchy-feely pursuit.

    • You are right, it shouldn’t have taken someone close to me coming out to change my beliefs. That is a close minded, way of looking at the world. What sucks, is that, good or bad, this is just how many, many people are. ESPECIALLY evangelical or religious people, who live most of their lives in a small bubble where everyone outside of their worldview is “other” and therefore not to be trusted. I know this because I lived it.

      I believe in shoving the issue front and center in people’s faces, when it’s an issue of utmost importance (just see my blog for proof of that), I just disagree with you by thinking that, in my experience, most people I know are better changed with love and grace, than anger and yelling. You’re right, activism is not a touchy-feely pursuit, but changing hearts can be.

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