Senator Rob Portman's recent change of heart regarding same-sex marriage has a lot of people talking. Some see it as a cynical, calculated act of a Republican politician who after the presidential election has discovered he is out of touch with most of the nation and is now regrouping. However, other explanations may be equally if not more plausible.

You see, two years ago, Senator Portman discovered his son was gay. As a researcher and psychotherapist, I can tell you that having a personal relationship with a minority group member is a powerful and effective way to alleviate prejudice. Social scientists have coined the term social distance to define how members of majority groups, such as white or heterosexual persons, tend to have little contact with their minority counterparts. This lack of contact can perpetuate prejudice, enabling majority members to project all sorts of negative qualities on others such as blacks or gays, without having any experiences to counter or disqualify their beliefs. The way many of our neighborhoods and schools remain racially segregated suggests that social distance is alive and well in our society. Further, the far rights' struggle to keep openly gay and lesbian people out of schools, the Boy Scouts, churches, children's books, and their efforts to censor art and journalism could be seen as an attempt to keep gays and lesbians invisible so that social distance is perpetuated and society's distrust and disapproval can be maintained. I don't know if Rob Portman had any relationships with gay men and lesbians before his son came out, however if he harbored any homophobic or heterosexist ideas, they needed to change if he wanted to continue to have a relationship with his son.

Social distance suddenly collapses when a family member comes out. For many of the white parents I interviewed for my book Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Families Adjust to a Gay or Lesbian Child ( I have found that as they learned more about homosexuality, parents not only become less homophobic and hetersexist but also more sensitive to issues of social justice and inequity based on race, ethnicity, and disability. Here is a quote from a white mother who initially did not accept her gay son:

I have become more sympathetic to outsiders in general. It is very easy to be smug in life. You do develop a little more generosity [toward] any kind of racial or oppressed group. There are so many in our society. I mean, we got involved through the parent and faculty gay/straight alliance. Then we got involved in the diversity group at our kid’s school and got involved with all sorts of issues which have to do with race and class. It was kind of very interesting stuff that probably would not have been so interesting to me had I not had a gay son. So I sort of recognize that is the positive thing that has come out of it.

And stated by a mother of a lesbian daughter:

If a person chooses to having a gay child and really working with it can be the biggest growth experience of your own life because it forces you to stretch yourself, to stretch your understanding of people--of what love is. I just think if you go with the flow it is a lesson in compassion and courage. And you watch a child come out and blossom into a wonderful person--and this is a privilege.

Will Senator Portman undergo such a dramatic change of perspective? This is currently unclear--but what does seem apparent is that he has undergone a transformation of sorts, and his son’s coming out may be largely responsible.

About the Author

Michael C. LaSala Ph.D., LCSW

Michael C. LaSala, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the School of Social Work at Rutgers University, and author of Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Families Adjust to a Gay or Lesbian Child.

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