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Rob Portman’s familiar gay journey

When I came out to my mother in my childhood bedroom after coming home from Minnesota in 1990, she exclaimed, “Don’t tell anyone!” When Giuseppe and I took her to Italy to meet his parents in 1994, she shouted, “That’s right!” when Giuseppe’s mother said in Italian, “They need girlfriends.” While my born-again Christian mom had over time come to accept my being gay, something changed last Mother’s Day. Four days after President Obama declared his support for same-sex marriage, so did my mother for the first time.

Coming out of the closet is an intensely personal journey. It knows no timetable. Like every out-of-the-closet gay man and lesbian, I had to go through my own stages of self-discovery and self-acceptance before I was ready to state my truth to friends and family. The same process is true for our family members and friends. My mother’s progression from denial of who I am to concern about equal protection for same-sex couples took 22 years. It wasn’t easy for either of us. But she got there.

On Friday, Sen. Rob Portman announced that he, too, got there. The Ohio Republican who voted for the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as a congressman in 1996 is now in favor of marriage equality. What compelled this change-of-heart was the coming out of his son two years ago. 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.”

Portman’s pivot earned him praise. But it also earned him considerable scorn. A pixelated brawl took place on my Twitter and Facebook feeds. “While I commend you for your change of heart,” tweeted @cfahooligan to me and Portman, “it’s sad that it took your own son being gay for you to be human.” In another tweet she wrote, “You’ve hurt so many people in your own selfish ideology to deny them basic human rights. Now it’s all good?”

This sentiment is shared by some fellow opinion writers. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait  and Matthew Yglesias at Slate spoke for many when they blasted Portman for lacking empathy for gay men and lesbians until he had a gay person in his family. “Someone should ask Portman why he didn’t take a stand for, you know, other people’s children,” Chait wrote.

But Portman is taking a stand now. He’s doing so in a party that is dead-set against same-sex marriage. A party whose policy platform calls for a federal constitutional amendment banning it. And he is the only sitting Republican senator to come out in favor of marriage equality. As I noted on Friday, even though Portman says he doesn’t want to force his views on anyone else, what he did for the love of his son will move others to follow his example.

Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand where Portman’s critics are coming from. Would that everyone, especially someone in the senator’s powerful position, could empathize immediately with gay men, lesbians and their families striving to have the Constitution mean something to them. That they deserve equal protection under the law and the dignity and respect that come with marriage. But real life is more complicated and incremental than that.

Sean Bugg, the editor of the gay Washington magazine MetroWeekly, summed it up best in a tweet on Friday.

Two years after knowing his son is gay, Portman supports gay marriage. 25 years after I came out, my father doesn’t. Some perspective.

Yes, some perspective. Many parents don’t get there as my mother did or as quickly as Portman did. But when they do, they ought to be supported for doing the right thing, following their heart and moving our nation forward.

Follow Jonathan Capehart on Twitter.