The problem of restricted empathy, revisited

Recently, Ohio Senator Rob Portman, a Republican, reversed his position on gay marriage.  He wrote, in an editorial in The Columbus Dispatch, that his son’s coming out to him was the primary motivation for his reversal.  From Portman’s editorial:

“At the time, my position on marriage for same-sex couples was rooted in my faith tradition that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman. Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love, a blessing Jane and I have shared for 26 years.”

When I first learned of this news, I was encouraged by it.  It must have taken great courage and strength, I thought, for him to make the announcement.  Portman’s acceptance of his gay son should serve as an example to all parents, even to those for whom gay marriage is still abhorrent, simply for the reason that accepting one’s children is a virtue in itself.  It is my hope that opponents of homosexuality might see in Portman a model for how to behave in similar circumstances; hopefully, others will see the adaptive value of continuing to nurture a close relationship with family members who may disagree with a parent’s values or beliefs.

There wasn’t a possible way one could genuinely spin this heartening story into partisan political bickering – at least, that’s what I thought.  A Republican senator comes out in support of gay marriage: shouldn’t liberals simply be happy about that?  Isn’t the overall goal of making the world a safer, better place for our gay brothers and sisters better served when people from both sides of the aisle begin to support the idea that gay people, too, deserve to experience the joy of long-term committed relationships with those that they love?

Unfortunately, Mano Singham has found a way to spoil this otherwise positive development.  His support for Portman’s change of heart is tempered by the fact that Portman didn’t change his mind before his son came out to him.  Singham says the following in a blog post:

“While I welcome anyone who has a change of heart and supports equality for the LGBT community, I am getting a little tired of people like Portman and Dick Cheney doing so only because they discover that their loved ones also belong to the group they once tried so hard to marginalize.”

For a person who supposedly cares so much about empathy, I found his post profoundly lacking in empathy.  What I urge you to consider, as you evaluate Portman’s change in heart, is the fact that many human beings, liberal and conservative, do this very same thing.  We all began with our own biases, which are rooted in a number of elements, including one’s biological predispositions and environmental influences.  Of course, when we come into contact with people for whom we have great affection, but with whom we have significantly different values, we are sometimes challenged to reevaluate deeply held beliefs and, perhaps, modify them.  For Portman, this happened on the issue of homosexuality.  Other people may not have needed the same circumstances to see the value of affirming the rights of gay people, but Portman did.  We should not castigate the man for not changing his position until his son challenged his views.  We should simply acknowledge that for some, catalysts like having a gay son will be the only way to instigate the reevaluation process.  When the change occurs, we should simply embrace it.

Consider the potential value Portman brings to the pro-gay marriage camp.  Here’s a man who still holds the same religious and political beliefs he always held (except, of course, with regard to gay marriage).  It is through discussion with people like this, and by reading editorials like Portman’s, that conservative holdouts on this issue might acquiesce.  By assimilating his new views with his religious convictions, he offers religious conservatives a view of another way to engage this issue; he makes holding religious convictions and loving gay people a plausible alternative in a political landscape that doesn’t reward such nuance.

My advice to Singham and those who agree with him: try not to restrict your empathy to those who don’t share your political beliefs.  Republicans are people too and they deserve your empathy just as much as anyone else.

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Filed under LGBT issues, politics

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