Coming out: How Sen. Rob Portman’s gay son charted his path

In a column in Monday's Yale Daily News, Will Portman describes his emotional 'coming out' journey, and how it led his conservative dad, Sen. Rob Portman, to support gay marriage.

Office of US Sen. Rob Portman/AP/File
This undated photo provided by the office of US Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio shows Senator Portman (r.) and his son, Will. Senator Portman is now supporting gay marriage and says his reversal on the issue began when he learned that Will is gay.

For politicians who have a change of heart about gay marriage – see Obama, Barack – figuring out how and when to “come out” is a delicate task.  

But for the gay teenage child of a prominent Republican politician with national ambitions – and a record of opposing any expansion of gay rights – coming out may seem so risky, so emotionally fraught, as to be not worth it.

That latter scenario is where Will Portman found himself, the son of Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio, just two years ago as a freshman at Yale University. In a column in Monday’s Yale Daily News, young Mr. Portman – now a junior – describes the difficult process of coming out to his parents, his keen awareness of the political implications for his father, and the hope that his family’s story can be a positive example for anyone who is “closeted and afraid.”

The gay relative of another prominent conservative – Chief Justice John Roberts – made news Sunday when the Los Angeles Times reported that Justice Roberts’s lesbian cousin would be attending this week’s US Supreme Court arguments on gay marriage as his guest. That tells us exactly nothing about how Roberts might ultimately rule on gay marriage, but it does point to a simple fact: that many people have relatives and/or friends who are gay, a fact that can affect one’s views of this fast-evolving social issue.

Which brings us back to the Portman family. Senator Portman made headlines earlier this month by announcing that he now supports gay marriage – an unusual step for a top Republican, who was on GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s short list for running mate. In his recent gay-marriage announcement, Portman also told the world that his son was gay – a fact already known to family and friends, but until then, not a part of the senator’s public profile.

“Some people have criticized my dad for waiting for two years after I came out to him before he endorsed marriage for gay couples,” writes Will Portman. “Part of the reason for that is that it took time for him to think through the issue more deeply after the impetus of my coming out. But another factor was my reluctance to make my personal life public.”

The younger Portman also writes that when his dad was under consideration as Mr. Romney’s running mate last summer, he told the Romney campaign that his son was gay, that he and his wife, Will’s mother, were “supportive and proud of their son,” and that they’d be open about his orientation on the campaign trail.

The senator wasn’t selected, but he told CNN it wasn’t because his son was gay. The Romney campaign told him that, Senator Portman said.

Still, though Will Portman had supported his dad’s interest in aiming for higher office, he writes that he was “pretty relieved to have avoided the spotlight of a presidential campaign.”

But now, in writing Monday’s column, Portman has cast himself in a slightly different role – as an advocate in his own right for young gay people coming to terms with their identity and for the right of same-sex couples to get married.

He writes of how, as a college freshman, the prospect of coming out was “pretty terrifying.” He intended to tell his parents during winter break but didn’t. Back at school, he went the library, wrote a letter to his parents, put it in overnight mail, and awaited a response.

“They called as soon as they got the letter,” Portman writes. “They were surprised to learn I was gay, and full of questions, but absolutely rock-solid supportive. That was the beginning of the end of feeling ashamed about who I was.”

Portman also shows an understanding of the two worlds he inhabits – his conservative hometown, Cincinnati, and the liberal environs of Yale, which he calls the “Gay Ivy.” And, unlike some advocates of gay marriage, he does not judge those who have a problem with legalized unions for same-sex couples.

“We’re all the products of our backgrounds and environments, and the issue of marriage for same-sex couples is a complicated nexus of love, identity, politics, ideology, and religious beliefs,” Portman writes. “We should think twice before using terms like ‘bigoted’ to describe the position of those opposed to same-sex marriage or ‘immoral’ to describe the position of those in favor, and always strive to cultivate humility in ourselves as we listen to others’ perspectives and share our own.”

“I hope that my dad’s announcement and our family’s story will have a positive impact on anyone who is closeted and afraid, and questioning whether there’s something wrong with them,” he concludes. “I’ve been there. If you’re there now, please know that things really do get better, and they will for you too.” 

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