I relate to the Portman family on many levels.
Like Will Portman, I am also the son of a staunch Republican dad to whom I came out. My dad is older than Rob Portman. He adheres very much to the viewpoints of Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. Rob Portman presumably knows all those people personally.
Like the Portmans, we too had our political theory versus family integrity moment. In 2000, another Republican father of a gay son, Pete Knight, placed an anti-same sex marriage initiative on the California ballot called Proposition 22. Knight, unlike Portman, faced the child he should have fought to protect and used his political infrastructure to his son’s detriment. He was determined to not only disapprove of who his son was, but to codify discrimination against him into the California legal system in a preemptive strike against same sex marriage.
As the proposition 22 campaign raged through the state, I made a point to avoid the discussion of the initiative with my dad. Even though my parents were supportive of me and my life, they still voted their dogma and exclusively supported conservative candidates and ballot measures. We argued politics constantly, but in this instance I avoided the whole election roster like the plague. I could not handle a discussion with them where they explained to me how they would vote for something that was tearing me apart.
My dad however insisted that we talk and review the entire ballot. We tussled on most…he, the right winger, dealing with his renegade progressive son. Then we got to proposition 22. My heart was sinking fast and every ounce of me was gearing down for the emotional fight I knew was going to happen. My dad brought up the initiative. He looked me dead in the eye and said, “Mother and I have talked. We are dead set against this. There is no way that we would support anything like this.” My eyes welled up and through the tears I was fighting back, I looked over at my mother who nodded vehemently in agreement. “Thank you,” I whispered with all the forced energy I could muster.
I fully understand the emotion behind Will Portman’s tweet: “Especially proud of my dad today”. Rob Portman deserved that pride. Pete Knight and other fathers in our countryhave not stepped up as he did, and as my dad did in 2000.
There is an enormous part of life that is uncharted and as our children bring new challenges, we often need their input to help solve it. On gay rights issue, Harvey Milk predicted the Portman situation directly when he said, “Every gay person must come out…. Once they realize we are indeed their children, we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all.” Will Portman helped Rob Portman see that the myths, the lies and the innuendo were not true.
There are still questions open for Rob Portman moving forward. As a fellow dad who listens to his kids, I have jotted them out here for his consideration:
As a fellow dad, one coincidentally also named Rob, who is also a Christian who believes in family, I want to commend you on your recent change of viewpoint. Like your son Will, I am also gay and have known that about myself as long as I could remember. Coming from both your and his perspective, I can assure you emphatically that you have not only done the right thing, but you have stood as a shining example for all fathers in our country and I hope that others, faced with a choice such as you have had, follow your example.
Here are the four big questions I believe it would be helpful for you to consider:
1. Are you ready to be attached to this issue? This is one genie that you cannot get back into the bottle. Just ask other celebrities who have come out, many of which who have declared they were not going to be spokespeople. Many step up after they see that their actions have been meaningful to many people. They also experience rejection by others due to their new public persona. You experienced it from the Romney campaign. You were upfront with them about the details of your family and were told that it did not make a difference. You did not get the nod. Do the math. It is real. The “glass ceiling” is named appropriately—transparent rejection.
Whether you know it or not, you cannot go backwards on the momentum you have started. You can either commit more fully and become stronger and more effective, or stop and have your previous base of supporters drive you into obscurity.
2. Will the Supreme Court make this issue go away? On the one hand, you have taken a passive stance, along with many others, against a sweeping nationwide marriage equality reform. On the other, you made your announcement a week before the case starts before the Supreme Court and are potentially encouraging them to take sweeping actions. Are you hoping that they will actually make the ruling that you have claimed not to be seeking?
3. Should you really leave the marriage equality question to individual states? Your motivation for rethinking your stance on marriage equality and your stance on states determining the issue for themselves is inconsistent. One day your son will marry. Do you want him restricted from travel or relocation to some states with his family for fear an accident or crisis could devastate them without marriage protections? What about other families in heavily red states? Do the principles that make marriage equality right for Will not apply to them? Please consider that there is room in a philosophy that allows states to determine who can marry there while recognizing marriages performed in other states as they do with every other marriage criteria. Why should same sex marriage be singled out?
4. How can you be a bigger hero? You are in a unique position to help on this issue. You are the dad of a gay man. You know that the myths and innuendos demonizing your son are false. You have lived with him and who he is. You also know what your political caucus chooses to believe and why. You can be the bridge to what is right.
I admire what you have done for your family. You are their leader, their rock, their protection, and the vehement hero for all the principles that drive their lives. Sometimes dads have a calling to move beyond the four walls of their own homes and father a public that also looks at them to lead. You can be such a dad.
We are a nation with LGBTQ families in all 50 states that need your voice and your strength on their behalf. You can look at what you have contributed to the national discourse on marriage equality, take the thanks for it, and be done. Alternatively, you could also pick up the mantle and become one of the greatest dad advocates in national history. Obviously, you get to choose how far you pursue the issue but it could be defining in terms of your ultimate legacy. I, as a fellow dad, hope you take up the bigger challenge. Taking on the bigger challenges is what real dads do.
ROB WATSON is Director of Partners and Alliances Communication for Hitachi Data Systems, and blogs at evoL= . He has served as the president of the board of directors for Santa Cruz AIDS project, is a dedicated activist for the LGBT community, and a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post. He is the proud father of two sons he first fostered then adopted. They reside in Northern California.