Friday, March 15, 2013

The Evolution Will Not Be Televised?

Today offered a breakthrough of sorts. Another prominent Republican endorsed marriage equality. This time, he's a current elected official. And this time, he's a sitting US Senator. And this time, he's someone who even made Mitt Romney's VP short list.

So what compelled Senator Rob Portman's (R-Ohio) change of heart? His son came out.

"I'm announcing today a change of heart on an issue that a lot of people feel strongly about," Portman said. "It has to do with gay couples' opportunity to marry. And during my career in the House and also last couple years here in the Senate, you know, I've taken a position against gay marriage, rooted in part in my faith and my faith tradition. And had a very personal experience, which is my son came to Jane, my wife, and I, told us that he was gay and that it was not a choice and that, you know he, that's just part of who he is, and he'd been that way ever since he could remember."

Portman said his son's revelation led him to drop his opposition to same-sex marriage. "And that launched an interesting process for me, which was kind of rethinking my position," he said. "You know, talking to my pastor and other religious leaders and going through a process of, at the end, changing my position on the issue. I now believe people ought to have the right to get married."

Certainly, this comes during an already exciting month on the LGBTQ equality front. The Prop 8 and DOMA law suits are scheduled for oral arguments in The US Supreme Court later this month. Many prominent Republicans who had previously served in elected office, as White House staff, and/or in the last 4 Republican Presidential Campaigns recently filed amicus briefs to the Court urging pro-equality rulings in both cases. And now, we have this.

So are Republicans finally evolving on LGBTQ equality? Frank Bruni seems to think so. And he seems to think today's big announcement can help in expediting the process.

Rather than quibble with it, I’d prefer to note how profoundly emblematic his announcement is. Coming right after the widely publicized amicus brief in favor of gay marriage that dozens of prominent Republicans signed, Portman’s remarks illustrate a rapid movement by, and rising tension within, a party that has largely allied itself with social conservatives and is bit by bit breaking with them on this issue.

Seeing how this plays out over the next few years is going to be fascinating, though there’s no doubt how it will play out over the long haul. The majority of Republicans will be forced to publicly embrace same-sex marriage, because a huge majority of young Americans already do. There’s only one trajectory here—toward acceptance and equality—and to ignore that is to risk political marginalization and irrelevance.

In any case, my question for and about Portman, a decent and thoughtful man I’ve known for many years, isn’t why it took a gay son to move him to his current stance, but whether it really took a gay son to do that, and whether he was here or almost here a while back, but just didn’t say so.

What’s too infrequently noted or written is how many Republicans who aren’t on the party’s far right have privately, silently accepted and supported gays and lesbians but have stayed publicly mum, and articulated contrary positions, in the interests of political survival. A big part of what’s changing now isn’t their hearts. It’s their belief that they can be true to their hearts without committing political suicide, because America has made extraordinary progress, and because there’s no turning back.

Steve Benen, however, was not in such a generous mood. He couldn't help but ask some tough questions on today's big announcement.

[I]f Portman learned about his son's sexual orientation in 2011, why did it take the senator so long to come around? And why was he still endorsing discriminatory policies in 2012?

While we're at it, the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted that Portman could support legislation to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, but the senator said he hasn't done this because he says "economic policy issues are his specialty." First, senators are required to tackle a variety of issues. Second, I've seen Portman's positions on economic issues, and if they're his "specialty," he's in trouble.

But even putting all of that aside, there's also a larger consideration to keep in mind about the nature of societal change.

To be sure, I'm genuinely glad Portman has done the right thing, and can only hope it encourages other Republicans to do the same. What I find discouraging, though, is that the Republican senator was content to support discriminatory policies until they affected someone he personally cares about.

What about everyone else's sons and daughters? Why must empathy among conservatives be tied so directly to their own personal interactions?

We've seen this a few too many times. A Republican will support Medicaid cuts right up until he sees the program up close, with his own eyes. Republicans will be skeptical about federal disaster relief right up until it's their community that sees devastation. Republicans are prepared to deny basic rights based on sexual orientation, right up until it's their loved one who's gay.

It seems the key to American social progress in the 21st century is simple: more conservatives having more life experiences.

Yes, that was harsh. But on the other hand, there may be a whole lot of truth to what Benen says. As of late, it seems like the bulk of the Republicans "coming out" for equality are the ones with the most to gain and/or least to lose by "coming out".

Meanwhile in the heart of the G-O-TEA, strong resistance to equality remains. In fact, current G-O-TEA darling & Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) just boasted of his continuing strident opposition to marriage equality yesterday at CPAC! And of course, CPAC itself lists pro-homophobia/transphobia organizations as its co-sponsors while limiting the involvement of pro-equality Republican outfits.

Even here in Nevada, where one would think "libertarian" attitudes on "personal freedom" would influence Republicans otherwise, evolution has been incredibly difficult. None of the Nevada Republicans in Congress has endorsed marriage equality. Governor Brian Sandoval (R-Scared?) continues to fight equality in court. And even a certain (in)famous Nevada Republican legislator has introduced a "Trojan Horse Bill" meant to strip even the basic defenses from wrongful discrimination from LGBTQ Nevadans!

So Rob Portman's big announcement today is certainly a major step forward. It's now just a matter of whether his fellow Republicans will start moving alongside him. That question looks to be up in the air at the moment.

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