Will Portman, Matt Salmon, and Me

I fear it is a sign of advancing age that I can remember back to 1996 (and the preceding Dark Ages) when the debate over marriage equality began in earnest and only one Senator–Ron Wyden–openly spoke out in support.  Two others–Ted Kennedy and Carol Mosley-Braun–also supported marriage equality but in a more circumspect manner.  Of those original three, only Wyden still serves in the Senate.

Over the next fifteen years, support for same-sex marriage in the Senate grew slowly; before 2011 only 15 Senators, Democrats all, supported it, although LGBT activists suspected, as they did with President Obama, that many more Senators secretly supported the cause.  Understanding that a craven but Democrat-controlled Senate would be far more beneficial to the LGBT cause than a Republican-controlled Senate, LGBT organization chose not to rock the boat–often to the consternation of the larger and more impatient LGBT community.

In the past two years, and especially since last November, Senatorial support for marriage equality has exploded.  As of the time of this writing, 54 Senators–over half the Senate–support pro-marriage equality legislation.  This no doubt due to the confluence of several factors: (1) consistent polling data showing that a majority supports marriage equality; (2) President Obama’s high-profile endorsement of same-sex marriage and his subsequent reelection; (3) the embrace of marriage equality in the Democratic party platform; (4) the election of Tammy Baldwin the first openly gay Senator; and most importantly (5) the referendum victories in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington.  From hereon in, for most Democratic Senators (and all future serious Democratic Presidential candidates) it is far more dangerous to oppose same-sex marriage than to support it.*

Surprisingly, of the 54 Senators who favor marriage equality, two are Republicans.  Mark Kirk of Illinois, whose prior voting record on gay rights issues included a vote against repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, issued a very simple but powerful statement: “Same-sex couples should have the right to civil marriage.  Our time on this earth is limited, I know that better than most.  [Kirk recently recovered from a stroke.]  Life comes down to who you love and who loves you back–government has no place in the middle.”

Before Kirk announced his support though, Rob Portman of Ohio changed his mind to support same-sex marriage.  To say that his announcement was a great shock is an understatement; his voting record on LGBT rights was abysmal.  Portman, a candidate to be Mitt Romney’s running mate, announced his support for same-sex marriage in an editorial in which he explained how he came to that position.  Two years ago his son Will came out to him, and Rob Portman came to understand that by opposing marriage equality he was hurting his own son.

The response to Portman from the political right was–predictably enough–outrage.  The response from the left however, was more complicated.  Most of us celebrated Portman for his change of heart.  Disappointingly though, there was a lot of anger toward Portman coming from some influential corners.  Dan Savage, wrote that the true hero of the story was Will Portman, a correct enough statement, misguided in the implication that Rob Portman’s actions are somehow less than meaningful.  The argument of Portman critics such as Savage, Paul Krugman, and Matt Yglesias goes something like this:

Rob Portman, like most/all Republicans, lacks empathy.  He was able to comprehend the issues facing gay people only because his son is gay.  Therefore, if someone he loves doesn’t have that problem (such as poverty), Portman has no capacity for empathy.

I acknowledge a grain of truth to this criticism.  Will Portman will never suffer poverty or employment discrimination (the Senator still does not support ENDA), a benefit of being a Senator’s son who attends Yale.  Nevertheless, Savage, Krugman, and Yglesias are flat-out wrong.  Rob Portman changed his mind about marriage equality because someone he loves is gay, and that exemplifies exactly why the central message of the gay rights movement has been a call for gay people to come out.  Rob Portman should be celebrated; he is proof that we change our loved ones’ minds by coming out.


Following Portman’s announcement, Representative Matthew J. Salmon (R-AZ) commented on television that he too had  gay son, but unlike Portman, he did not support marriage equality.  Claiming his son Matt was “by far one of the most important people in my life,” Congressman Salmon said, “I love him more than I can say.  It doesn’t mean that I don’t have respect, it doesn’t mean that I don’t sympathize with some of the issues.  It just means I haven’t evolved** to that stage.”  Salmon’s statement set off a deserved wave of criticism, but one person who supported him was his son Matt.  (To avoid confusion, the father will be referred to as “Salmon” or as “the Congressman” and the son as “Matt”).

It is impossible to judge another man without walking a mile in his shoes; I acknowledge I do not know Matt’s journey.  I cannot judge him, especially about something as intimate as his relationship to his parents.  Nevertheless, it is nearly impossible to watch his gut-wrenching “It Gets Better” (IGB) video, or read the often-harrowing Phoenix New Times account of Matt and his former partner Kent Flake, and not recoil in horror from the emotional hell his family created for him.

The gay activist and writer Michelangelo Signorile wrote a scathing indictment of Salmon who, along with his wife Nancy, was actively involved in the (failed) 2006 campaign to ban legal recognition of same-sex relationships in Arizona.  Nancy headed the campaign and involved Matt.  This is after he came out to her.  (He was in reparative therapy at the time, and he voted in favor of the ballot measure.)  In his IGB video, Matt said that his mother did not get involved in the later, successful 2008 ballot measure, so I suppose that is some progress.

Signorile is a loud, abrasive, and overly opinionated writer and activist.  In this instance however, he is absolutely correct.  The damage that the Salmons did and still do to their son is incalculable whether or not he admits it (whether or not he can admit it).  Signorile writes:

Those parents who do not move on the issue, who reject their children, either by literally throwing them out of their homes or by saying, “I love you, but I don’t accept your ‘lifestyle,'” are putting themselves above their children. For young people in that situation, living as second-class citizens in their own families and fooling themselves into thinking that their parents love them (because they so much want that love from their parents) while allowing their parents to quietly condemn them each and every day, even as they grow into adulthood, the rejection eats away at their self-esteem.

For whatever reason–politics, religion, old-fashioned bigotry–the Salmons do not fully embrace their son.  The Congressman may say that Matt is “by far one of the most important people in my life,” yet his actions show that Matt is not important enough.  If a parent loves his child unconditionally, then there are just some sacrifices the parent has to make.  Belief in one’s own self-righteousness is one of them.

Recently, Matt defended his father on a local Phoenix television station and again on CNN.  He insisted that his father loved him and was not an anti-gay bigot.***  These interviews however, are far from convincing.  Despite claiming that his relationship with his father was never stronger, the hurt, young man who nearly broke down into tears on his IGB video was very much apparent.  Matt tells us that his father loves him, but his answers to reporters’ questions show a contrary picture.  He neither defends (or even explains) his father’s homophobic votes in Congress nor disputes the image of his family from the Phoenix New Times article.  In the local television interview, Matt’s real revelations were (1) a near admission that he regrets that his dad is not like Rob Portman; and (2) the lowest point in his relationship with his father was when Matt left reparative therapy–which all reputable medical and mental health associations consider insidious and harmful junk science.  Worse, when asked if his parents would come to his (theoretical) wedding, Matt said, “I’m not going to lay that burden on them, but I hope that they do.”  That is the response of something who doesn’t want to admit the real answer is no.  Watching Matt is like watching a helpless captive.  On CNN, Mat said that in order to get his parents to respect his views, he had to respect theirs.  No, no, no!  Their views are that he is less of a person and his love is less meaningful than theirs.  That is a view worth fighting not respecting.

I am sure Matt would not want me to pity him; most likely he would resent for doing so.  Yet after watching this interview, I feel nothing but the most profound pity for him.  He does not know unconditional love, and he is clearly not in a place where he is strong enough to cope without it.  Therefore, he lets his parents emotionally batter him, his father especially so.  Matt should never have appeared before the cameras; it was his father who dragged him into it.  By talking about Matt on national television, the Congressman turned his son into a shield against completely correct charges of homophobia.  He made Matt protect him rather than the other way around.


Growing up gay in suburban Philadelphia was not as difficult as in some locations; I imagine I would have had a much more difficult time in places like rural Mississippi or inner-city Detroit.  Nevertheless, I did not escape unscathed.  I grew up in the era when AIDS was still “the gay cancer.”  The Defense of Marriage Act was passed and signed into law as I left high school for college.  I knew no openly gay adults, but I knew plenty of homophobes.  In those days I was in deep denial–praying every night for God to make me “normal.”  It didn’t work.

I came out at age 19, late by today’s standards but not so late in the mid-to-late 90’s.  Coming out was a traumatic experience, so much so that I could not even say “I’m gay” to the first person I told.  Being able to say the actual words for the first time happened days afterwards.  The next month I told my parents.  My father was surprised, but relatively supportive.  My mother was neither supportive nor surprised.  She told me she would never be able to reconcile herself to my being gay; a decade and a half later, she has kept her word.  We still speak, but her refusal to support me has damaged our relationship, probably irreparably.

I have a friend who recently married his long-time partner in a state where same-sex marriage is legal.  My friend’s parents knew his partner and treated him well.  When the wedding invitation arrived however, my friend’s parents wrote to him to tell him that they would not attend.  They said that although they tolerated his homosexuality, and felt they had been very good about doing so, approving of his marriage by attending was a bridge too far.  My friend was crushed by the knowledge that his parents refused to see his marriage as anything other than a “marriage.”  Their message was that they believed his relationship to be a camp spectacle–a parody of heterosexual love.  My friend stopped speaking to his parents.

I thought of my mother and my friend as I watched Matt’s interviews.  Whether Matt abandons his parents or stays but with the understanding of the limits of their love is not for anyone to judge.  Matt deserves sympathy, empathy, compassion and support.  I understand Matt Salmon’s pain because I wonder, as he must also, why I don’t deserve the love Rob Portman has for his son Will.


*  I did not mention the House of Representatives, and with good reason.  Because there are 435 of them and because they represent ever-changing electoral districts, the number who support marriage equality is bound to be skewed by factors such as a redrawn (gerrymandered) Congressional map rather than a true representation of the nation.  What is important at the moment is that there are six open LGBT members of the House.

**  I hate when politicians who claim not to support same-sex marriage use the word “evolve.”  Evolution may be the slow process of adaptation to an environment, but in modern usage, to evolve to get to a more advanced (i.e. better) state of being–as in “we evolved from simple single-celled organisms to complex multicellular ones.”  Therefore, the word “evolve” actually denotes that supporting marriage equality is the morally correct position.  When President Obama said he was evolving, it was seen as a coded message, and it is now when Lisa Murkowski, the (Republican) Senator from Alaska says it.  This brings up the obvious question however: If you understand that supporting marriage equality is morally correct then why aren’t you already supporting it?

***  There are two conflated issues here that must be separated: (1) Congressman Salmon’s love for his son; and (2) Congressman Salmon’s alleged homophobia.  They are not mutually exclusive and should not be treated thus.  The Congressman may love his son more than anything in the world, but that is not a defense against blatant homophobic actions.  The entirety of the American LGBT populace suffers from his regressive votes in Congress, and that is not negated by a personal connection as Matt may want to believe.  One judges a person’s character by their actions far more than by their personal connections.

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