March 17, 2013

Dear Fathers: What If Your Son Is Gay?

Kurt's Dad:  My son's a homosexual, and I love him.  I love my dead gay son.

J.D.:  Wonder how he'd react if his son had a limp wrist with a pulse.

~Heathers (1988)

Friday, conservative Republican Senator Rob Portman published a shocking article coming out in favor of marriage equality for gays after years spent toeing the GOP anti-gay party line:

Two years ago, my son Will, then a college freshman, told my wife, Jane, and me that he is gay. He said he’d known for some time, and that his sexual orientation wasn’t something he chose; it was simply a part of who he is. Jane and I were proud of him for his honesty and courage. We were surprised to learn he is gay but knew he was still the same person he’d always been. The only difference was that now we had a more complete picture of the son we love.

At the time, my position on marriage for same-sex couples was rooted in my faith tradition that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman. Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love, a blessing Jane and I have shared for 26 years.

I wrestled with how to reconcile my Christian faith with my desire for Will to have the same opportunities to pursue happiness and fulfillment as his brother and sister. Ultimately, it came down to the Bible’s overarching themes of love and compassion and my belief that we are all children of God.

Senator Portman's article drew plenty of criticism from fellow conservatives, hardly surprising given the influence of the religious right over Republican politics. More surprising—and disappointing—was sniping from many pundits on the political left who called Portman's change of heart a "confession of moral failure" or evidence of "a fundamental lack of compassion", causing "disgust" at Portman's lack of empathy and accusations of a "politics of narcissism".

All of the critics need to pipe down. There is no question marriage equality is a hot-button political issue, and a sitting U.S. Senator breaking with his party's position on the issue undoubtedly has political implications.  Yet I view Senator Portman's announcement as more of a personal and family matter, made public only because he is a fairly high-profile politician. Seeing the Senator and his wife publicly declare how proud they are of their son Will, how they love him as he is, not as they might have wanted him to be, and how they wish for their son to have the opportunity to be just as happy as they and their other children, only drives home for me how difficult the situation must have been for the entire family. Imagine being Will Portman, the gay son of a prominent politician whose party is anti-gay (often rabidly so), in a state where an anti-gay marriage amendment was cynically placed on the ballot in 2004 in a transparent effort to bring Republican voters to the presidential polls, whose father was even mentioned as a leading Vice Presidential candidate for an avowedly anti-gay Mitt Romney. Imagine the fear and anxiety that Will must have felt as he tried to work up the courage to tell his parents he was gay. Imagine Will's relief when his parents accepted him with love. Imagine Will's pride when his parents not merely accepted him, but went so far as to publicly advocate for his right to marry some day, in direct contravention of what would be politically expedient for his father. To me, Senator Portman's article was not a political statement, but a public declaration of love and support from a father to his son. I have nothing but admiration for how the entire Portman family has handled this situation.

Senator Portman's article was a strange counterpoint to another note making the rounds on the internet this week, a note in which a father told his gay son there was no reason to worry about coming out:

I overheard your phone conversation with Mike last night about your plans to come out to me. The only thing I need you to plan is to bring home OJ and bread after class. We are out, like you now. I’ve known you were gay since you were six, I’ve loved you since you were born.


P.S. Your mom and I think you and Mike make a cute couple.

This note was pretty much the opposite of my personal experience. When I came out, my friends were overwhelmingly supportive. My mother, however ... well, she returned my Christmas letter unopened, with a post-it note attached stating:

We have no desire to know anything about the lifestyle you have chosen. Your letter will just upset us, so I am returning it.

~Mom & Dad

Now, my parents and I eventually worked through the issue, and our relationship is stronger than ever. But my experience, and the experience of the Portmans, is a reminder to fathers of young sons everywhere—your own son might well be gay. Of course, the odds are overwhelming your son will be straight—he only has roughly a 1-in-20 chance of being gay. Still, considering around 5% of kids will turn out to be gay, you will almost certainly be confronted with the issue of a gay teen at some point in your life. If it's not your son, it will be the son of a friend, or one of your son's friends. So, how will you handle the issue of your son growing up gay, or his growing up with a gay friend?

If your son is interested in sports, will you steer him toward football, basketball, hockey, wrestling, or baseball because they are more "manly"? If you coach a youth sports team, will you tell your team they are playing like "fags" or "pussies"? Will you tolerate a coach or fellow parent who uses anti-gay language? Will you stand by and let the more talented or popular kids on the team use words like "gay" or worse to taunt their opponents or even their own teammates?

What if your son excels in a sport like swimming, diving, gymnastics, ice skating, or volleyball; will you be embarrassed to attend his meets? Will you be openly disappointed if your son doesn't want to watch sports or go hunting or snowmobiling or hiking with you? Or what if your son wants to participate in drama, show choir, band, dance, or art? Will you attend every show? Take him to rehearsals? Brag to your friends about his awards? Or will you tell your son that he should stick to sports? Avoid his shows with forced excuses? Hide your discomfort from your friends with uneasy jokes?

When your friend confides over a beer that his son is gay, will you silently give thanks that your son is straight? When you learn for certain your son is straight, will you breathe a sigh of relief?

Knowing that gay teens are at substantially higher risk for depression and anxiety, being bullied or assaulted, abusing alcohol or drugs, dropping out of school or having educational problems, and attempting / committing suicide, will you be the strong father, coach, or role model who is someone a gay teen can turn to for support?

If you learn your son is gay, will you love him just the same? Will your son know this even before you tell him?

Frankly, though, if it turns out your son is gay, there are only two questions that really matter:

Will you be proud of your son?

Will your son be proud of you?

Especially proud of my dad today

~Will Portman, @wdportman, 6:34 AM; 15 Mar 2013


  1. Ironically, as supportive as I would be — I'm already not making judgments on what my 7-year-old son wants, even if those choices will most likely be far different from my own — I would probably give thanks that he was straight if a friend told me his own son was gay. It strikes me as an uncomfortably hard lifestyle, though I also continue to hope (and see signs that back my hope up) that when he would be an adult, whether or not someone is gay just won't matter all that much any longer. So maybe not.

  2. A well thought out post as always. I can understand your points on Senator Portman, but I struggle with 'accepting' Senator Portman's change of face.

    I appreciate the fact, that he genuinely seems to embrace his son and accept him, but deciding that his stance against gay marriage is all of a sudden wrong, while I applaud the Senator for realizing that his previous position was wrong. I don't understand how this isn't anything more then when it doesn't affect me it's wrong, when it does affect me it's right.

    I know it's impossible to not be a hypocrite at times there are millions of decisions and stances I've taken and while I guard against hypocrisy, I know there are many times that I've been one and will continue to be one.

    The Senator's hypocrisy in this case offends me, I expect better from our elected officials, who are intent on helping 'the people' and that means all the people, not just when you realize your grave errors as it happened to your family.

  3. Very nice post. My son came out to my wife and I when he was 20. I think I knew in my heart since he was about 11 or 12.

    I struggled with it, and honestly still do. Not on any religious or moral grounds, but as a parent you're number one concern is the safety and well being of your children. Yes, times are changing and he lives in a large east coast city where acceptance is much greater than where we live. (Arizona) But, he still faces challenges that as a parent, you just wish your child didn't have to face.

    I once took a road trip to Vegas with my Dad when he was almost 90. We talked about life and how he didn't worry much about anything at his age, especially death. But the thing that I'll always remember was he said the one thing you never stop worrying about is your kids. True for him, true for me, and may it be true for you someday if you choose so.


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