I came to Yale as a freshman in the fall of 2010 with two big uncertainties hanging over my head: whether my dad would get elected to the Senate in November, and whether I’d ever work up the courage to come out of the closet.
I made some good friends that first semester, took a couple of interesting classes and got involved in a few rewarding activities. My dad won his election. On the surface, things looked like they were going well. But the truth was, I wasn’t happy.
I’d make stuff up when my suitemates and I would talk about our personal lives. I remember going to a dance in the Trumbull dining hall with a girl in my class and feeling guilty about pretending to be somebody I wasn’t. One night, I snuck up to the stacks in Sterling Library and did some research on coming out. The thought of telling people I was gay was pretty terrifying, but I was beginning to realize that coming out, however difficult it seemed, was a lot better than the alternative: staying in, all alone.
I worried about how my friends back home would react when I told them I was gay. Would they stop hanging out with me? Would they tell me they were supportive, but then slowly distance themselves? And what about my friends at Yale, the “Gay Ivy”? Would they criticize me for not having come out earlier? Would they be able to understand my anxiety about all of this? I felt like I didn’t quite fit in with Yale or Cincinnati, or with gay or straight culture.
In February of freshman year, I decided to write a letter to my parents. I’d tried to come out to them in person over winter break but hadn’t been able to. So I found a cubicle in Bass Library one day and went to work. Once I had something I was satisfied with, I overnighted it to my parents and awaited a response.
They called as soon as they got the letter. They were surprised to learn I was gay, and full of questions, but absolutely rock-solid supportive. That was the beginning of the end of feeling ashamed about who I was.
I still had a ways to go, though. By the end of freshman year, I’d only come out to my parents, my brother and sister, and two friends. One day that summer, my best friend from high school and I were hanging out.
“There’s something I need to tell you,” I finally said. “I’m gay.” He paused for a second, looked down at the ground, looked back up, and said, “Me too.”
I was surprised. At first it was funny, and we made jokes about our lack of gaydar. Then it was kind of sad to realize that we’d been going through the same thing all along but hadn’t felt safe enough to confide in each other. But then, it was pretty cool — we probably understood each other’s situation at that moment better than anybody else could.
In the weeks that followed, I got serious about coming out. I made a list of my family and friends and went through the names, checking them off one by one as I systematically filled people in on who I really was. A phone call here, a Skype call there, a couple of meals at Skyline Chili, my favorite Cincinnati restaurant. I was fortunate that virtually everyone, both from Yale and from home, was supportive and encouraging, calming my fears about how they’d react to my news. If anything, coming out seemed to strengthen my friendships and family relationships.
I started talking to my dad more about being gay. Through the process of my coming out, we’d had a tacit understanding that he was my dad first and my senator a distant second. Eventually, though, we began talking about the policy issues surrounding marriage for same-sex couples.
The following summer, the summer of 2012, my dad was under consideration to be Gov. Romney’s running mate. The rest of my family and I had given him the go-ahead to enter the vetting process. My dad told the Romney campaign that I was gay, that he and my mom were supportive and proud of their son, and that we’d be open about it on the campaign trail.
When he ultimately wasn’t chosen for the ticket, I was pretty relieved to have avoided the spotlight of a presidential campaign. Some people have criticized my dad for waiting for two years after I came out to him before he endorsed marriage for gay couples. Part of the reason for that is that it took time for him to think through the issue more deeply after the impetus of my coming out. But another factor was my reluctance to make my personal life public.
We had decided that my dad would talk about having a gay son if he were to change his position on marriage equality. It would be the only honest way to explain his change of heart. Besides, the fact that I was gay would probably become public anyway. I had encouraged my dad all along to change his position, but it gave me pause to think that the one thing that nobody had known about me for so many years would suddenly become the one thing that everybody knew about me.
It has been strange to have my personal life in the headlines. I could certainly do without having my sexual orientation announced on the evening news, or commentators weighing in to tell me things like living my life honestly and fully is “harmful to [me] and society as a whole.” But in many ways it’s been a privilege to come out so publicly. Now, my friends at Yale and the folks in my dad’s political orbit in Ohio are all on the same page. They know two things about me that I’m very proud of, not just one or the other: that I’m gay, and that I’m Rob and Jane Portman’s son.
I’m grateful to be able to continue to integrate my two worlds, the yin and yang of Yale and Ohio and the different values and experiences they represent in my life. When you find yourself between two worlds — for example, if you’re navigating the transition between a straight culture and a gay identity — it’s possible to feel isolated and alone, like you don’t fit in with either group that makes up a part of who you are.
But instead of feeling like you don’t belong anywhere, or like you have to reject one group in order to join another, you can build a bridge between your two worlds, and work to facilitate greater understanding between them.
I support marriage for same-sex couples because I believe that everybody should be treated the same way and have the same shot at happiness. Over the course of our country’s history the full rights of citizenship have gradually been extended to a broader and broader group of people, something that’s made our society stronger, not weaker. Gay rights may be the civil rights cause of the moment, but the movement fits into a larger historical narrative.
I’m proud of my dad, not necessarily because of where he is now on marriage equality (although I’m pretty psyched about that), but because he’s been thoughtful and open-minded in how he’s approached the issue, and because he’s shown that he’s willing to take a political risk in order to take a principled stand. He was a good man before he changed his position, and he’s a good man now, just as there are good people on either side of this issue today.
We’re all the products of our backgrounds and environments, and the issue of marriage for same-sex couples is a complicated nexus of love, identity, politics, ideology and religious beliefs. We should think twice before using terms like “bigoted” to describe the position of those opposed to same-sex marriage or “immoral” to describe the position of those in favor, and always strive to cultivate humility in ourselves as we listen to others’ perspectives and share our own.
I hope that my dad’s announcement and our family’s story will have a positive impact on anyone who is closeted and afraid, and questioning whether there’s something wrong with them. I’ve been there. If you’re there now, please know that things really do get better, and they will for you too.
Will Portman is a junior in Trumbull College.