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Brynn Tannehill Headshot

The Unexpected Power of Coming Out

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When I was in theater back in 2005 and 2006 I learned a lot about Counter-Insurgency (COIN) theory. At its core COIN is all about winning the hearts and minds that are "winnable but not won." As simple as this strategy sounds, accomplishing it is incredibly hard.

This is especially true when the underpinnings of resistance are deeply rooted in religious and cultural tradition. The complexity and difficulty of winning hearts and minds is further increased by conducting information operations in an environment where your adversary isn't bound by a need to tell the truth. The opposition also had the luxury of being unscrupulous enough to apply horrific pressure on the local population to comply... or else.

The fight for LGBT equality, and particularly marriage equality, has a lot in common with COIN. We're dealing with religion, culture, demonization, and constantly battling lies designed to whip people into a frenzy against us. In Iraq, insurgents spread false rumors of us defiling Mosques, contaminating food, and desecrating Korans. Here, today, we are fighting myths that gay men are preying on children and transgender people are lurking in bathrooms. In theater, very bad things happened to suspected sympathizers. Back home Republican politicians who support the LGBT community rarely make it past the primaries.

I was thus dumbstruck when I heard my Senator, Robert Portman (R-OH), had changed his mind on marriage equality. Robert Portman, who was one of the original sponsors of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996. Robert Portman, who in 2009 fought against same-sex couples from adopting children, now supports marriage equality. He had all the hallmarks of a true believer, one of the hearts and minds that supposedly wasn't "winnable." What on Earth could bring about such a reversal? When Generals Petraeus and Odierno won over some of the Sunni Sheiks in Iraq, it was hailed as a military miracle.

It only took one person to change Portman's heart and mind, though. Not a surge of five combat brigades and the best military minds of our generation.

It was his son, who came out to him two years ago.

At an individual level, it is not terrifically surprising that Senator Portman could change his mind after finding out his son is gay. Multiple studies have shown that one of the best predictors of individuals' reactions to LGBT people is if that person already knows LGBT people. Polling data shows that the vast majority of Americans know someone who is LGBT, and the number continues to rise.

Conventional wisdom also says it is very hard to hate someone when you know their story. It is much harder still when they are your child, regardless of what religious authorities tell you. I have seen my father bend the rules of his church almost to the point of breaking just to avoid losing all contact with me. As a parent, I want a relationship with my own children regardless of where life takes them.

While this is just one man changing his opinion, the circumstances around Senator Portman allow the effects of his change of heart to ripple outwards in so many directions. Senator Portman is the first serving Republican senator to support marriage equality. He was on Mitt Romney's short list for Vice President. He joins President Clinton as one of the key players in passing DOMA who now feels differently, and expressing it on the eve of oral arguments before the Supreme Court.

Additionally, Ohio is perhaps second only to Florida as a battle ground state in presidential elections. Both Ohio senators now support marriage equality. The other is Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who has been a long time ally of the community. Ohio is also likely to have a ballot initiative on marriage equality during the 2013 off-year elections.

How will this influence that vote? I see this as being a positive, particularly if Senator Portman is willing to embrace the issue and speak out for it now. What happens if Ohio unexpectedly delivers marriage equality? We can only speculate, but given marriage equality was the signature issue in the win-or-lose state in the 2004 presidential election, it is a safe bet this changes the mental calculations of virtually every Republican politician, pundit and pollster in 2016.

When Senator Portman's son came out, it became a living, breathing example of the butterfly effect. When we tell the truth about ourselves and our lives, it doesn't just affect us and those we tell. It ripples outward, and contributes to the tsunami of social change we are witnessing. We can change hearts and minds more effectively than any COIN campaign the military could dream of. All it requires is living authentically and openly.