Will Portman came out to his father, Senator Portman, Republican of Ohio, in 2011, which caused his father to announce this week that he had changed his beliefs on marriage equality. Since then we have had a heated debate over coming out and over whether Senator Portman should be admired for changing his views. The culture’s confusions over these issues obscure the debate, which isn’t leading us anywhere.
Many people say that any recruit to our side in the marriage equality debate is always a good thing. Others add that the Senator should have changed his mind about marriage equality based on legal or constitutional arguments, not his emotional closeness to his son, or that he should have done it years before. Many Republicans seem to believe that there is no good reason for changing your mind about marriage equality.
Today, Josh Barro, the chief writer for the blog The Ticker, on Bloomberg News, puts up a post in which he argues that Will Portman is not to be thanked or admired for coming out because he had in fact done his duty. Listen to this:
This is why coming out is a duty: Every time a gay or lesbian person demands acceptance, they make it easier for others to do the same. We have the power to change people’s political and personal attitudes toward gays simply by being present and known to be gay; we can only exercise that power if we come out.
This is an argument that Harvey Milk gave powerful expression to before he was assassinated. Milk said,
Gay brothers and sisters, you must come out. Come out to your parents … Come out to your relatives. Come out to your friends, if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors, to your fellow workers, to the people who work where you eat and shop. Come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake.
This is an argument that has been put forward by leaders in the LGBT community for the last forty years. But there is something wrong with this. Both Barro and Milk understand that the burdens of coming out don’t fall on everybody equally. Barro when he came out:
Announcing that you’re gay in a wealthy family in a progressive suburb of Boston as you’re about to enter Harvard University is a pretty easy hand to play.
People are different and they are in different circumstances, and the gay community should not set up any general rules that condemn men and women who are different. There are many different ways of not coming out, just as there are many different reasons. If you can come out, fine. If you can’t, or don’t want to, that’s fine too. We’ll still love you. And for god’s sake, stop accusing people who don’t come out of not being honest with themselves, or of lying.
I think we have a pretty good thing going here in the GLBT community. We don’t need to force people to join us (if you don’t come out, we’ll say you’re lying). You’re going to be welcome here when you do decide to join us.