“I have come to believe that if two people are prepared to make a lifetime commitment to love and care for each other in good times and in bad, the government shouldn’t deny them the opportunity to get married,” he wrote in an editorial for The Columbus Dispatch.
The Republican senator’s “change of heart” came about after his son Will told his family in February 2011 that he is gay. He is making the announcement now because the US Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on two gay marriage cases in the last week of March, he told CNN and four Ohio newspapers in an exclusive meeting Thursday.
"I thought it was the right time to let folks know where I stand so there's no confusion, so I would be clear about it," Senator Portman said. He is now "getting comfortable with my position and wanting to do this before the politics of these court decisions make it more difficult to have an honest discussion,” reported The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, whose reporter was included in Thursday’s meeting.
Portman’s announcement signals a small, but potentially widening, wedge among Republicans over the issue of gay rights.
He is the first Republican senator to openly support gay marriage and the second-highest-ranking Republican to do so – he follows former Vice President Dick Cheney, whose daughter Mary is gay.
Portman asked Mr. Cheney for his advice before making his announcement.
"I spoke to him personally; I actually met with him," Portman told CNN. Cheney's advice was simple: “Do the right thing. Follow your heart,” according to Portman's recounting of the meeting.
"He was a good person to talk to because he also was surprised by the news, in that case, you know, his wonderful daughter, who he loves very much. And it forced him to re-think the issue too, and over time, he changed his view on it," said Portman.
Portman is known primarily for his acumen and conservatism on budgetary and economic issues – he served as President George W. Bush’s budget director – and has seldom been outspoken about social issues.
The 2012 election has prompted discussion within the GOP about the need to be more diverse and to broaden its appeal – something Portman would be aware of. He says he does not know of any Republican senators besides himself who back gay marriage, reported The Plain Dealer.
Many Washington Republicans this week are attending the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a conference that refused to include gay Republican group GOProud. At CPAC on Thursday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida defended his opposition to gay marriage.
"Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in a traditional way does not make me a bigot," he said.
Opinion polls show that public support for gay marriage outweighs opposition to it. Forty-eight percent of Americans say the US Supreme Court should establish a constitutional right for same-sex couples to legally marry, according to a Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll conducted Feb. 25 to March 5, while 37 percent said the court should not establish that right.
But among Republicans, Portman is definitely in the minority. Twenty-five percent of fellow Republicans support the right of same-sex couples to marry, while 67 percent oppose it, the poll shows. For Democrats, the numbers are about the reverse: 66 percent support it and 28 percent do not.
Gay rights activists say Portman will not be the last Republican senator to endorse gay marriage.
“We are moved by the love and support ... Portman and his wife are showing their son,” Ian James, FreedomOhio co-founder, told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “We appreciate the fact that the Senator wants his son to be able to marry and form a family to find the same happiness and security as his parents. Each day you can feel the momentum building toward ending marriage discrimination in Ohio.”
In 1996, Portman voted in favor of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman, barring federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
Now he would support repealing DOMA, even though he says states that do not recognize same-sex marriages should not be forced to, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.
As for his home state of Ohio, Portman said he would support overturning its 2004 ban on same-sex marriage if the issue were put to a voter referendum.
“I’m going to be supportive of Ohioans having the opportunity to marry,” he said. “I would not plan to take a leadership role in this, but people will know my position.”
Portman was in the running to be Mitt Romney’s pick for vice president in the 2012 campaign. Mr. Romney eventually tapped Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin as his running mate. Portman said that having a gay son did not play a role in that decision.
Portman said his son “encouraged” him to announce his new stance on gay marriage. Friday morning his son Will, a junior at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., tweeted, “Especially proud of my dad today.”