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The Day I Had to Face My Republican Father Over Gay Marriage

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AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File

I relate to the family of Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) on many levels. Like Will Portman, I am also the son of a staunch Republican dad to whom I came out. My dad is older than Sen. Portman, and he adheres to the viewpoints of Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, but Sen. Portman presumably knows all those people personally. As with the Portmans, our political viewpoints and their conflicts with our individual integrity brought us to a moment of truth.

In 2000 another Republican father of a gay son, Pete Knight, placed an anti-same-sex-marriage initiative, Proposition 22, on the California ballot. Unlike Portman, Knight used his political influence to the detriment of the son he should have fought to protect. He was determined not only to disapprove of who his son is but to codify discrimination against him and others like him into the California legal system in a preemptive strike against same-sex marriage.

As the Proposition 22 campaign raged through the state, I made a point to avoid any discussion of the initiative with my dad. Even though my parents were supportive of me, they still voted in accordance with right-wing dogma and exclusively supported conservative candidates and ballot measures. We argued about politics constantly, but in this instance I avoided any talk of the ballot initiative like the plague. I could not handle any discussion with them in which they might explain to me why they would vote for something that was tearing me apart.

However, my dad insisted that we talk and review the entire ballot. We tussled over most, with his right-wing views pitted against my idealistic, progressive views. Then we got to Proposition 22. My heart sank fast, and every ounce of me geared up for the emotional fight that I knew was going to happen.

It was my dad who spoke first, looking me dead in the eye as he said, "Your mother and I have talked. We are dead set against this. There is no way that we would support anything like this."

My eyes welled up, and through the tears I was fighting back, I looked over at my mother, who nodded enthusiastically in agreement. "Thank you," I whispered with all the energy I could muster.

Proposition 22 went on to win, of course, but I had enjoyed a personal victory, and it is one that the anti-gay political establishment has never been able to take away from me. I fully understand the emotion behind Will Portman's tweet, "Especially proud of my dad today." Like my dad, Sen. Portman deserves his son's pride.

Meanwhile, Pete Knight and other fathers in our country have not stepped up as Sen. Portman and my own dad did. After Sen. Portman revealed his reversal on same-sex marriage, Newt Gingrich, appearing on CNN's Starting Point, outlined three possible ways that a conservative parent might respond to a child's coming out: "You can say, 'I believe my principles so much, I'm kicking you out.' You can say, 'I still believe in my principles, but I love you.' Or you can say, 'Gee, I love you so much, I am changing my principles.' Rob picked the third path. That's his prerogative." But Gingrich left out the best option: You can say, "I love you, and I know you. This knowledge has made me dig deeper and realize that there were no principles behind what I thought I believed in the first place."

I also relate to Sen. Portman himself. I am a dad named Rob. I have sons whom I adore. I learn from them. There is an enormous part of every individual's life that is uncharted, and as our children bring us new challenges, we often need their very input to help solve them. Harvey Milk predicted the Portmans' situation when he said, "[E]very gay person must come out. ... [O]nce they realize that we are indeed their children and that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all." Will Portman helped his father see that the myths, the lies and the innuendos were not true.

There are still opportunities for Sen. Portman to do more moving forward. He can do more than my dad could do. He is in a unique position to help on this issue. He is the dad of a gay man. He knows firsthand that the myths and the innuendos demonizing LGBT people are false. He also is connected to and knows the Republican infrastructure.

We are a nation with Will Portmans and LGBT families in all 50 states. Sen. Portman needs to step beyond the GOP's "let's leave it to the states to decide" copout and stand up for all LGBT Americans. Standing for full, nationwide LGBT equality is a bigger challenge than anything he has done to date. He gets to choose whether he stands for full LGBT equality or merely stands by his son. Fighting for full equality for his son and all LGBT Americans could define his ultimate legacy. As a fellow dad, I hope he takes on the bigger challenge, because that's what real dads do. It's what we are made for.