Coming out and opinion change

Senator Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, has announced a change of position on same sex marriage, presumably following a change of heart.  (Of course, it could go the other way as well.)  Senator Portman, formerly President George W. Bush’s budget director, and before that a Congressman who voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, says that he began reconsidering his stance when his son Will, then nineteen and at college, told his parents that he was gay.

The story asks us to think about how people change their minds and their positions, and also provides yet more evidence on the importance of the strategy of “coming out.”  (I’ve been thinking about this for a while….)

Senator Portman took two years to digest his son’s news and think about what it meant to Will, to America, and to his own political career. He spoke with other prominent Republicans, including those who had come to support same sex marriage, like former vice president Dick Cheney, also the parent of an openly gay child.  He finally decided that he wanted his son–and people like him–to enjoy the same opportunities that he enjoyed, including the chance at a marriage recognized and supported by the US government.  He wanted to go public before the Supreme Court considered a pair of cases on same sex marriage, but apparently not soon enough to sign onto an amicus brief submitted to the Court by a few dozen somewhat prominent Republicans.

I’m fascinated by the processes through which people change their minds, and surely, experience should matter.  Parents should be able to learn from their children–although there are more than a few stories of prominent figures who are unable to come to terms with their children’s sexual orientation.  (The sad stories of well-known conservative parents, including Phyllis Schlafly, Pete Knight, and Alan Keyes, who are estranged from their gay children, make for a long and melancholic read.)

Of course, we’d like to be able to develop empathy for people facing troubles that we haven’t personally encountered, whether discrimination, poverty, disease, or even crappy schooling.  (See Matthew Yglesias’s thoughtful commentary at Slate.)  And experience and empathy don’t always translate into political sympathy.  (Is Clarence Thomas still reading Politics Outdoors?)  No church should dismiss the slow converts.

Publicly changing position is another matter.  Senator Portman hasn’t exactly been a leader here; more people support same sex marriage now than oppose it.  But he’s stepped toward the leading edge of the Republican Party; certainly, he risks alienating key Republican constituencies.

Given the composition of their respective parties, it’s somewhat easier for President Obama to “evolve” on gay rights than Senator Portman; indeed, it’s pretty costly not to do so.  Evolution is dependent upon environment, as Darwin observed.  When Obama announced his evolution, Americans who valued his opinion on other issues were encouraged to evolve as well.  Portman will be part of a similar, but likely slower, process in the GOP.

Coming out brings a distant grievance closer, person by person.  Everyone who comes out makes it a tiny bit easier for the next person to do so, and a little bit harder for others to deny the issue–or the people attached to it.  Calling it safety in numbers is too simple, but larger numbers of people coming out does reduce the risk for all of them.

The coming out strategy for gays and lesbians is decades old, but it is not limited to them.  Undocumented young people who publicly announce their status are coming out, and taking substantial risks to do so.  People who put on a button announcing their politics, for a candidate or against a war, are coming out too, even if it’s usually easier to cover or remove a badge than a racial, sexual, or legal status.  Wearing a crucifix is also coming out.

Those who come out tell people who agree with them that they are not alone.  Those who don’t agree, well, at least they can no longer say that they don’t know anyone in that group.

Cabell Chinnis was one of Justice Lewis Powell’s clerks in 1986 when the Court considered Bowers v. Hardwick, a case about Georgia’s law criminalizing sodomy.  By all accounts* Justice Powell liked and respected him, and, while considering the case, told him that he didn’t think he’d ever met a gay person.  He didn’t know that Chinnis was one of many gay clerks who had worked for him, and Chinnis didn’t offer that easily available evidence to enlighten the justice.  Years afterward, he spent a lot of time wondering whether such a revelation would have made a difference.

Will Portman won’t have to wonder.

*A particularly good one is Joyce Murdoch and Deb Price, Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. the Supreme Court.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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5 Responses to Coming out and opinion change

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