Portman's Conversion Should Be a Lesson

The issue of equal rights for LGBT individuals has vexed politicians for decades. I have my own cloudy history with the issue, which I believed at the time was a principled position based on my faith. But I no longer believe it was right.
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Reading about Sen. Rob Portman's evolution on marriage equality set off my own thought-provoking chain reaction of responses. Sen. Portman should be commended for making public his intensely personal change of heart, and his son, Will Portman, showed uncommon courage in encouraging his father to make this announcement -- knowing his own private life would be cast into the spotlight.

As a former Governor, and more importantly as a father, I know all too well how protective elected officials are of the special relationships they have with their children. I expect this shared experience between Sen. Portman and his son has only increased the respect and appreciation they feel for each other -- the feelings that grow out of a willingness to sacrifice one's own self-interest in order to make life better for someone else.

The issue of equal rights for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender individuals has vexed politicians for decades. I have my own cloudy history with the issue, having supported a law in Mississippi that made it illegal for LGBT couples to adopt children. I believed at the time this was a principled position based on my faith. But I no longer believe it was right.

There are far too many children in America in need of a loving home, who are shuttled between temporary homes and group shelters that fail to provide the stable, nurturing environment all children deserve. If you are fortunate in life, age and knowledge breed compassion. And as I have gotten older, I came to understand, that a person's sexual orientation has absolutely nothing to do with their ability to be a good parent.

In my own upbringing, my family lacked the ability to provide a stable, nurturing environment. After my father died when I was seven and my mother entered into an abusive relationship, I shuffled between houses -- staying with friends, families from church, and relying on the kindness of teachers and people throughout my community to help me grow up essentially without parents.

As I thought about this issue, I came to understand that in order to do everything possible to keep another child from growing up like I did, we cannot continue to blindly disqualify people from becoming parents -- just as we should not deny an entire group of people the basic civil right of marriage -- simply because many of us fear what we do not understand. Like a majority of Americans in recent years, I came to understand that fear of homosexuality was leading our governments -- including the one I ran as Governor of Mississippi -- to deny the equal rights to an entire segment of our population that are afforded all of us under the Constitution.

Like Sen. Portman, my evolution on LGBT adoption came from intensely personal reflections on my own life. What is sad to me is that my understanding of this issue did not come until after I had left office and no longer had the power to right this wrong. This reality weighs heavily on me to this day.

In every decision I made as Governor, I always tried hard to view the profound personal and individual impact of the laws I signed and policies I enacted on every Mississippian. Had I vetoed the law denying LGBT adoption, the Legislature had more than enough votes to override my veto. Nonetheless, this decision that all of us made together has made it harder for an untold number of children to grow up in happy, healthy homes in Mississippi--and that breaks my heart.

Sen. Portman said in his interview on CNN that prior to his son's coming out as a gay man, he had focused primarily on fiscal issues and given little thought to his party's position on marriage equality. I don't know what led him to his original opposition to marriage equality, but his son's experience caused him to see the impact this position was having in a personal way.

While I applaud Sen. Portman for his evolved stance on marriage equality -- an issue he and I have come to agree upon -- it is my sincere hope that Sen. Portman, and all of our elected leaders throughout the country, take a lesson from his journey to understanding.

The lesson is that the policies and positions of elected leaders matter. They are not a collection of focus group-tested political talking points engineered to enhance re-election. This is not a board game, or reality television or pretend government. We do not get to hit reset and start over. The decisions of our leaders have an impact on our lives.

Sending our young men and women to fight, and many to die, in Iraq and Afghanistan had an impact on the lives of thousands of American families -- including mine. The ridiculous and intractable catfight over sequestration is putting thousands of jobs and the future of our economy in jeopardy. The list of real and lasting repercussions of this childish stalemate is too long and painful to fully list. And the decision to deny two loving people the right to marry, or to adopt a child in desperate need of a nurturing and loving home and family, affects lives in a manner that is equally unconscionable.

Like Sen. Portman, we all know, or are related to someone, who is LGBT. They are our friends, coworkers, neighbors, our siblings, our cousins, aunts or uncles, children or parents. To deny them basic human and civil rights out of political expediency is just wrong.

Our federal government will not even begin to properly function until leaders in Congress learn the lesson Sen. Rob Portman learned this week: political positioning has consequences. And we must be aware, as policy makers, that those consequences carry a heavy impact felt by all American families -- even our own.

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