Patterson: Visibility, diversity benefit LGBT right movement

Patterson discusses the “Rob Portman Effect” in regard to support for same-sex marriage.

Sara Patterson

Sara PattersonI have come to believe that if two people are prepared to make a lifetime commitment to love and care for each other in good times and in bad, the government shouldn’t deny them the opportunity to get married,” Republican Senator Rob Portman said in an Op-Ed column last month. “As a congressman, and more recently as a senator, I opposed marriage for same-sex couples. Then something happened that led me to think through my position in a much deeper way. Two years ago my son, Will, then a college freshman, told my wife, Jane, and me that he is gay.”

“LGBT Americans are our colleagues, our teachers, our soldiers, our friends, our loved ones,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a video released by the Human Rights Campaign last month publicly announcing her support of same-sex marriage. “Like so many others, my personal views have been shaped over time by people I have known and loved.”

This endorsement fueled a slew of 2016 presidential run rumors.

“My views on this subject have changed over time, but as many of my gay and lesbian friends, colleagues and staff embrace long-term committed relationships, I find myself unable to look them in the eye without honestly confronting this uncomfortable inequality,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) posted on her Tumblr last week.

It has been an exciting month in the fight for marriage equality. Not only did the Supreme Court of the United States hear arguments about the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, two acts that legally define marriage as between a man and a woman, but many high-profile politicians, like Portman, Clinton and McCaskill have publicly announced their support for same-sex marriage.

Looking at their statements, you can’t help but notice a commonality among them. While explaining his or her shift in opinion, each politician pointed to people that they knew personally: family, friends and colleagues. It’s no surprise that knowing a gay person makes someone more likely to support gay rights. It takes it from a political or religious issue to a personal one.

CNN has dubbed it “The Rob Portman Effect.” A poll released by the network on March 25, the day before the Supreme Court held its hearing, found that 57 percent of Americans have a close friend or family member who is gay, a percentage that is very close to the amount of Americans who support same-sex marriage.

The swell of support on the issue is visible not only through polls, but through Facebook profile pictures. If you’re like me, you’ve been pretty confused the past week as to who exactly commented on your post because everyone has a red equal sign set as their profile. The Human Rights Campaign urged people to change their profile picture to show their support for marriage equality and, boy, did they. My news feed has been covered in that picture for the past week, mostly from my heterosexual friends.

Now, I’m not saying that their views on the matter were decided simply because my name happens to be on their friend list, but I hope that reading my statuses or the stories I post or just knowing that their friend/niece/cousin/co-worker/high school classmate is among the nearly nine million gay Americans whose rights are being debated by the Supreme Court played a factor.

I’ve always thought that having diversity in your own life is the best way to keep an open mind. I was lucky to go to an incredibly diverse high school. My relatively small graduating class of around 120 students was made up of just about every race, religion, economic class and personality you could think of, something that is pretty rare in a city as segregated as Philadelphia. This is true even among my smaller, tight-knit group of friends. Once, while eating in the food court at Liberty Place, a woman came up to us and told us “how nice it is to see all the different colors sitting next to each other.”

The diversity and open-mindedness among my friends is, without a doubt, one of the major reasons I am so comfortable with my sexuality. There are statistics that say that one in 20 people are gay, maybe even one in 10. Well, among the 10 to 15 friends I’ve kept in touch with from high school, I was not the first to come out as gay. I wasn’t even the second. I was likely the third or fourth.

Whether or not my straight friends support gay rights isn’t even a question. For them, the idea of same-sex marriage isn’t a foreign concept and it isn’t some hypothetical political debate. They want their friends to get married. They want to dance at our weddings. They want to be our bridesmaids.

The “Rob Portman Effect” is not a new phenomenon. Thirty-five years ago, gay icon Harvey Milk summed it up nicely in a speech, imploring people to have the courage to come out: “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 for all.”

Sara Patterson can be reached at

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