COHEN: Coming out and changing minds

I was disappointed after Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, came out in favor of gay marriage a few weeks ago.

But I wasn’t disappointed at Portman or his position — I was disappointed in the liberals who blasted him for citing his personal experience as the reason for his about-face. “Rob Portman and the Politics of Narcissism,” said Slate. “Don’t Give Rob Portman a Free Pass,” read The Huffington Post.

I admit I had the same snarky reaction for a moment — my father had supported gay rights before he knew he had a gay son — but I quickly realized that my nastiness was misplaced. What mattered was not that Portman had once held a different position. Rather, what mattered was that the first sitting Republican senator (from a swing state, mind you) was motivated by his love for his son to come out in favor of gay marriage — and seemed to genuinely regret his former view.

A few days later, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a video announcing her support for gay marriage. This was not a surprise move, as both her daughter and husband had previously signaled their own support. But look at the words she used: “LGBT Americans are our colleagues, our teachers, our soldiers, our friends, our loved ones. … Like so many others, my personal views have been shaped over time by people I have known and loved.”

“By people I have known and loved.” This was precisely the same emotional logic that motivated Portman to come out in favor of marriage equality. Did Clinton express it more eloquently? Yes, she did, but no one really thinks this was a new belief for her.

Rob Portman, on the other hand, had a record of not supporting gay rights. This was truly a change of heart for him, and it was prompted by his son shaking his core beliefs. Of course he was less eloquent and less comfortable expressing such a momentous change. But to me, that makes him more inspiring — he did not state his opinion because of political necessity, he changed his mind because he believed it was the right thing to do.

If gay rights are truly human rights, as Clinton so beautifully stated in a speech in Geneva, then gay rights cannot be a partisan issue. Both parties must (and eventually will) adopt gay rights as an obvious part of American society. But that cannot happen if the left pillories every Republican who changes his or her mind.

I found the left’s criticism especially disappointing because it stood in such harsh conflict with the words of Harvey Milk, the gay San Francisco city supervisor murdered because of his sexuality. He said, “Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. … Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all.” Harvey Milk was exactly right — one need only look at the opinion polls to see that.

Will Portman ’14 and every gay American who has struggled to come out of the closet have prompted the titanic shift in public opinion on gay rights. And to criticize those who change their mind because of a close friend or relative does a disservice to the bravery of both coming out and of changing one’s mind.

Sam Cohen is a sophomore in Calhoun College. Contact him at samson.cohen@yale.edu .

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