The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rob Portman takes the lead on gay marriage

This morning’s news that Rob Portman supports same-sex marriage is a stunning announcement in the national debate on marriage equality. The Ohio senator is part of the Republican firmament. Under President George W. Bush, he was the U.S. trade representative and led the Office of Management and Budget. He represented the Buckeye State’s 2nd district from 1993 until 2007. And during his House tenure, Portman supported the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and an amendment to the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

Not anymore.

Portman told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that his “evolution” on marriage equality began when his son, Will, came out as gay to him and his wife two years ago. The junior at Yale told them “it was not a choice, it was who he is and that he had been that way since he could remember,” Portman said.

It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that’s of a Dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have — to have a relationship like Jane and I have had for over 26 years….

When Portman talked to Dick Cheney about it, the former vice president, who has a legally married lesbian daughter, told him to “do the right thing, follow your heart.”

While no other sitting Republican senator has yet to “do the right thing” and come out in favor of same-sex marriage, Portman is not alone in the GOP. More than 100 prominent Republicans have signed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case to overturn California’s Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. And a majority of Americans support same-sex couples having the right to marry and to enjoy all the rights and responsibilities that go with it.

In a powerful and personal op-ed for the Columbus Dispatch, Portman rooted his change of heart not only in his love for his son but also in his conservatism.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he supports allowing gay couples to marry because he is a conservative, not in spite of it. I feel the same way. We conservatives believe in personal liberty and minimal government interference in people’s lives. We also consider the family unit to be the fundamental building block of society. We should encourage people to make long-term commitments to each other and build families, so as to foster strong, stable communities and promote personal responsibility.


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, and a potential source of renewed strength for the institution.

True to his conservatism, Portman believes that approval of same-sex marriage should be made in the states. Nine states, including Maryland, and the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to wed. And Portman believes that “[j]udicial intervention from Washington would circumvent that process as it’s moving in the direction of recognizing marriage for same-sex couples.”

Despite this media blitz — right smack in the middle of CPAC and little more than a week before the Supreme Court hears two cases on related to gay marriage — don’t look for Portman to be an advocate. According to the Plain Dealer, he told reporters gathered in his office yesterday that “he doesn’t want to force his views on others.” But his prominence within the Republican Party and in national politics makes Portman a leader, no matter how reluctant, on this civil rights issue.

Follow Jonathan Capehart on Twitter.