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Monday, March 18, 2013

The Best Leaders Take a Stand Before Bigotry Affects Them

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, center, with his family.

"Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all." - Harvey Milk 

Last week, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio changed his views on same-sex marriage. He did so because his son is gay. Not only is Portman a prominent senator, he was also among the reported finalists for a spot on the Republican party's ticket this past year.

But this isn't an article about parties. It's an article about people. And Portman's decision to change his stance on same-sex marriage says a lot about how people make their decisions. When it comes right down to it, honorable people back those they love. They may or may not agree with their loved ones' decisions, but they don't stop loving them and they do support them in the face of criticism.

On the flipside, it also demonstrates how easy it is to make judgments in the abstract. If something doesn't affect you or those you love, it's easy to be harsh, dismissive and even bigoted. It's noble to stick up for family members, but does your family really deserve any better treatment than another's? Is my family any more worthy of our attention, compassion and respect than people I've never met?

Harvey Milk

Yet Harvey Milk was right. This is exactly what happens, time after time. It happened to Dick Cheney, an opponent of same-sex marriage until his daughter came out as a lesbian. And it happened to Jerry Sanders, the mayor of San Diego, who did a 180-degree turnabout on the issue because he could not bring himself to tell his daughter, a lesbian, that her relationship wasn't as important as an opposite-sex couple's.

Even President Barack Obama chalked up his "evolved" position on the issue based on his own daughters' views: "It doesn't make sense to them and frankly, that's the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective."

But here's the thing: It shouldn't have to come to that. We should be understanding enough to do the right thing before someone we love is directly affected - and even if no one we love ever is. We should be able to put ourselves in another's shoes, and we should already be "evolved" enough to understand abstract ideas such as human rights before we're hit over the head with a pretty big piece of concrete personal reality.

This is not to diminish the stands that Portman, Cheney, Sanders, Obama and others have taken. Each should be applauded for doing the right thing. For a contrast, see the statement made by House Speaker John Boehner on the subject in response to Portman's shift: "Listen, I believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. All right. It's what I grew up with. It's what I believe. It's what my church teaches me. And I can't imagine that position would ever change." Of course, for Boehner, it's all still very much abstract. But closing one's self off to the possibility of change is to become irrelevant - because change is going to happen, without you or not. The question is whether you'll be an instrument of change, someone who passively accepts it or someone who opposes it at every turn.

The Boehners of the world aside, more and more people are accepting same-sex marriage. They're doing the right thing. But in the best of worlds, we do the right thing for the right reasons. Heroes aren't people who act because their personal world has changed, they're those who act because they want to change things for everyone - for the better. It's only when we take the lead that we can truly claim to have evolved.

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