Rob! (Scott Applewhite/AP) Rob! (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

As Rob Portman demonstrated Friday, coming out in support of gay marriage, it’s one thing when it’s other people’s kids. Other people did not raise them correctly. Other people did not play Mozart to them in the womb and force educational puzzles on them. Other people gave them too much sugar at mealtimes and did not teach them the Golden Rule. If your son makes noise on an airplane, it is because his ears are having difficulty adjusting to the altitude. If other people’s children make noise on airplanes, it is because they are tiny menaces who should be shut down at any cost. If other people’s children want to get married to their significant others and have the same rights as anyone – well, that is too bad for them. If yours do, that’s quite different.

You raised them right.

It is hard for bigotry to survive proximity. Sweeping generalizations only sweep so far, and when you have an actual human to consider, all bets are off.

The trouble with Portman’s announcement that he came to support gay marriage after his son came out as gay, nice as his decision is, is that it doesn’t offer much of a path forward. Yes, the acknowledgement that this is a logical step for people who value marriage and the family is promising, and yes, the statement that it’s a generational thing that is bound to come around sooner or later is good, but what strategy does it offer the civil rights movement, short of trying to make sure all the DOMA opponents are issued a gay child? If only this whole Gay Recruiting thing were a real thing and not an urban legend!

The news about Rob Portman has provoked a number of responses.

Some, like New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, have accused him of selfishness. “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander unless I happen to know any of those geese or ganders personally” is no way to make policy, they argue.

Others, like Josh Barro, point out that it still, sadly, takes courage to be a quality human to your gay kids, and hooray for him for doing so and still more congratulations for admitting to this decency in public.

It is, after all, a logical position. As Portman points out, if you believe that the family is the fundamental building block of everything, and that the union of two loving adults in marriage is a valuable basis on which to build a family, why would you stop the people who are actively campaigning to take part in it? In this worldview, what’s undermining the family isn’t the comparatively few people who do want to get married. It’s the millions who don’t.

The reason changing attitudes to gay marriage a generational thing is the same reason that ultimately moved Portman: It is getting harder and harder to think of gay men and women as a Faceless Society-Undermining Menace. Of course Rob Portman’s son doesn’t want to Insidiously Undermine Basic American Institutions. He’s Rob Portman’s son, and Rob didn’t raise him like that.

It can’t be the Sinister Other. It’s your son. It’s your roommate. It’s your cousin, your neighbor, your daughter, your best friend. You know these people.

One way of triggering the realization that people are not faceless menaces but humans with dreams like yours is to be related to them personally. If only that came more naturally to more people. But it’s a good revelation, however it comes.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.
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