03/21/2013 08:13 pm ET Updated May 21, 2013

Coming Out Is Speaking Out

Senator Rob Portman, who helped Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign and co-sponsored the Defense of Marriage Act, kick-started a firestorm among politicos and LGBTQ advocates across the nation with his recent reversal on same-sex marriage. The catalyst for this sudden change, according to the Columbus Dispatch, was hearing his son Will come out of the closet.

While the change appears startling for a conservative senator, it's not unheard of for conservatives to suddenly decide that their homophobic rhetoric was a bit misguided once they discover a family member who is gay or lesbian. Alicia Wiersema of ABC News pointed out this trend in a recent article that showed how other conservative politicians such as Dick Cheney and Bob Barr changed their positions on gay marriage after a family member came out. It's certainly frustrating to see public figures support civil rights for all only when not doing so would negatively impact a loved one--especially when it's a government official who is supposed to represent all of their constituents. But it's still a positive development, and it reminds us just how important coming out can be.

Portman's experience also speaks to the power of human relationships. As a father, I can appreciate the strong impulse to support your children for who they actually are. A parent's love can overcome deep societal prejudices and open people up to new conclusions about the world around them. Of course, this brings to mind all the sad exceptions to this rule where parents fail to accept their children and sometimes go as far as breaking ties with them over their differences. But while such exceptions show how deep rooted the diseases of prejudice are, they don't invalidate the claim that personal relationships can help many to overcome them.

It's not just LGBTQ Americans that face consistent prejudice from their family, friends, and institutions. Many political religious conservatives, often in the majority, fail to recognize their own special privileges and ignore the challenges of people who struggle against prejudice based on race, class, and gender. Atheists, long maligned and vilified without even a pretense toward fairness, are also frequent targets of discrimination. PZ Myers, author of the Pharyngula blog, recounts the story of one man who was fired as a teacher because he was merely suspected of being an atheist, an all too common experience of employment discrimination. Atheists also have a harder time expressing their beliefs in public forums, as Hemant Mehta of the Friendly Atheist blog points out in a recent story about a banned atheist billboard.

So far, nontheist Americans haven't come out in significant enough numbers about their lack of belief in a god in order to seed the needed change in perceptions and attitudes. Harvey Milk spoke of the urgent need to come out when he said in 1978 that "as difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends, if indeed they are your friends... Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all." Milk was advocating for gay rights, but his thinking can be applied to atheists and others who might otherwise pass as the majority in a world where the minority is so often penalized. His words even hold value for those who either cannot hide their minority status or who have already been outed, by choice, by accident, or by malicious intent. For we not only must remind the majority that we exist, we have to make clear our dedication to bringing these features about ourselves front and center so that all can be placed on notice that discrimination will not be tolerated.

Milk, like Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King, Jr. before him, recognized that we can't just hope for others to become tolerant in a world that oppresses those that are different; rather, we have to show them just how wrong their prejudices are by identifying ourselves as personal examples of the community that they malign.

Unless raised to emphasize empathy and equality, people often avoid or distrust what is unknown or different, which is why conservative religious activists have tried for years to paint both LGBTQ and nonreligious Americans as outsiders seeking special rights that will disrupt our society. It wasn't long ago when then Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels spoke openly about the perceived destructive impact of atheism, saying "atheism leads to brutality" in a NewsChannel 15 interview. Members of these communities have a responsibility to speak out and show people that the misinformation spread about our identities is just a lie.

Senator Portman's son Will's decision to come out to his father was a brave one, especially considering his father's public opposition to gay marriage. His bravery is exactly what we all must emulate if we are to defeat those who would see our society divided upon sexual, religious, or other lines. It won't be easy, and we must all be willing to make sacrifices and overcome our fears. Hopefully the reactions will be positive, but even if they aren't, at least we will be able to better discern our true friends and family members from those who value their bigotry over their personal relationships.