When Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said Thursday that the GOP needs to “embrace liberty in both the economic and the personal sphere,” this likely isn’t what he had in mind.
That same day, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) announced his support of same-sex marriage, citing his 21-year-old son Will as the reason for his change of heart, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Portman previously opposed it and voted for the Defense of Marriage Act as a representative in 1996.
Portman’s son came out to him and his wife two years ago, leading Portman to ask clergy, friends and eventually former Vice President Dick Cheney, who has a gay daughter and favors same-sex marriage.
In Portman’s words, from the Plain Dealer:
“The overriding message of love and compassion that I take from the Bible, and certainly the Golden Rule, and the fact that I believe we are all created by our maker, that has all influenced me in terms of my change on this issue … in a way, this strengthens the institution of marriage.”
The Washington Post reports Portman is the only sitting Republican senator to publicly back gay marriage, which is even more noteworthy considering his vetting for the vice presidential nomination last year and the swing-state status of Ohio.
Portman’s announcement also comes after a group of top Republicans filed a brief with the Supreme Court in support of gay marriage. Two cases before the court on the constitutionality of DOMA and California’s Proposition 8 deal with the issue, and oral arguments begin later this month.
The country as a whole has moved more toward Portman’s viewpoint in the last decade, with 48 percent of Americans favoring gay marriage, according to a Pew Research Center study released in November. But Republicans haven’t changed much on the issue, with support up to only 25 percent from 21 percent in 2001.
As a rising star within the GOP, this could put Portman in a tricky situation. He said he didn’t consider the political implications, but “doesn’t want to force his views on others,” the Plain Dealer writes. He also said that state laws regarding same-sex marriage should take prominence over federal laws. Much of his reputation also comes from not social policy but economic, previously serving as director of the Office of Management and Budget and U.S. Trade Representative under President George W. Bush.
Republican reaction hasn’t been fervently against Portman, but it also hasn’t been overly accepting. Former House Speaker and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich told CNN that Portman chose one of three paths he said someone can take when they find out a family member is gay:
“You can say I believe my principles so much, I’m kicking you out. You can say I still believe in my principles, but I love you. Or you can say, gee, I love you so much I am changing my principles. Rob picked the third path. That’s his prerogative.”
It’s a tough spot for Republicans, considering the reasons Portman cited. It’s not like they can say “well, this issue matters more than your son” and still claim to be the party of family values.
It’s also curious what could happen going forward with other Republicans or politicians in general. Might this bring about introspection and more changes of heart? Or might it just be an isolated case?
For a comparison, and this sounds unrelated, but let’s turn to the world of hockey. Professional athletics, particularly male-dominated sports, have a culture of homophobia, even for fans outside the actual goings on. It isn’t talked about openly, and it’s why Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe received so much attention for his support of gay marriage, writing that it “won’t magically turn you into a lustful cockmonster.” (This is PG-13, folks.)
But something different happened in hockey, in a situation much like Portman’s. Brendan Burke, the young son of former Toronto Maple Leafs and Anaheim Ducks general manager Brian Burke, came out to his family during Christmas 2007 and later to his hockey team at Miami University in Ohio in November 2009. The account was later reported by ESPN.com, as his team, family and — perhaps most importantly — dad supported him.
This all brought about much discussion on the role of homophobia in hockey, drawing comparisons to racial barriers in sports. Brendan Burke died in a car crash in 2010 at age 21, but his coming out continued to impact hockey. A member of the Chicago Blackhawks marched in the city’s Gay Pride Parade that summer with the Stanley Cup, and Burke’s family established a foundation in his name with the backing of many NHL players.
The Burke and Portman stories have strong similarities — the young son coming out, the Ohio connection and the strong anti-gay sentiment in the father’s field. Portman and Brian Burke’s stature also shouldn’t be ignored — they are, at least, equally relevant in the GOP and NHL.
Problem is, people don’t play hockey because they oppose gay marriage. Joining the Republican Party — well, that’s another story.