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  • Sasha Issenberg

March 15, 2013: Rob Portman endorses same-sex marriage


Ohio Senator Rob Portman became the country’s first prominent elected Republican to endorse marriage rights for same-sex couples.

Over a long career in the mainstream of Republican establishment politics, the technocratic Portman had been a reliable, if not particularly vocal, opponent of gay rights. As a member of the House of Representatives, had in 1996 co-sponsored the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Eight years later, he endorsed a sweeping amendment to Ohio’s constitution that forbade any recognition of same-sex couples. [] In 2005, he joined the administration of George W. Bush as the president was campaigning to add a comparable ban to the U.S. Constitution.

But in 2011, a year after Portman’s election to the U.S. Senate, Portman’s son Will came out of the closet while a student at Yale. “Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective,” Portman later wrote, “that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love, a blessing Jane and I have shared for 26 years.” He kept to himself on the topic until just before the U.S. Supreme Court heard its first cases elated to gay marriage. “I thought it was the right time to let folks know where I stand, so there’s no confusion, so I would be clear about it,” Portman would explain.

That morning, CNN began airing clips from an interview Portman had arranged to announce “a change of heart on an issue a lot of people feel strongly about,” and he invited reporters from the four largest newspapers in his state to follow up with him. Throughout those exchanges, Portman talked about his son and leaned on expressly conservative logic for his new stance, citing discussions with his pastor and also the inspiration of British Prime Minister David Cameron, a Tory who had begun a legislative process to recognize same-sex unions after his 2010 election. “One way to look at it is that gay couples' desire to marry doesn’t amount to a threat but rather a tribute to marriage,” Portman wrote in the Columbus Dispatch.

Portman’s announcement had less of an immediate impact on his fellow Republicans than on Democratic elected officials, who responded in a way they had not when Barack Obama made a similar declaration ten months earlier. Under new pressure from the media and activists, one by one Senate Democrats announced a change of position on same-sex marriage; within three weeks, all but three had matched Portman’s. (Eight years later, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, still appears to be opposed to equal marriage rights.)


The Engagement:
America's Quarter-Century
Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage

​By Sasha Issenberg

The riveting story of the battles over gay marriage
in the United States – the most important
civil-rights breakthrough of the new millennium.
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