It is easy in life to feel sorry for yourself when times are rough or when a member of your own family is in pain. But the ability to empathize with an unrelated human being and their situation in life is a quality not found in enough men and women.
Republican Sen. Rob Portman from Ohio recently had a mind-opening experience which made him understand the issue of gay marriage in a totally different light: His son announced that he was gay.
For those readers not familiar with Portman, it is fair to say that he is not only one of the most conservative members of the Senate, but was one of the strongest anti-gay marriage advocates in Congress.
But it is amazing what happens to a person's opinion on these types of issues when a life experience gives that person a new worldview.
"It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that's of a Dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have - to have a relationship like Jane and I have had for over 26 years," Portman said recently to a reporter who asked him about his about-face on the issue of gay marriage. "The overriding message of love and compassion that I take from the Bible, and certainly the Golden Rule, and the fact that I believe we are all created by our maker, that has all influenced me in terms of my change on this issue," Portman said.
Portman was not only one of the sponsors of the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal ban on same-sex marriage that is being challenged in the Supreme Court this year, but in 1999 he voted for a law that prevented gay couples from adopting children.
All of that has now changed. In the Columbus Dispatch, Portman wrote about his change of heart by explaining that he had, "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."
Meanwhile, his fellow conservatives in Congress don't know what to make of Portman's change of heart. Sen. James Inhofe, Republican from Oklahoma, once expressed to a reporter that he was "very proud" that no one in his family was gay. So when Inhofe was told of Portman's son and his new position against the DOMA during a CNN interview, he said, "Well, I ... I think the world of Rob Portman. He's an intelligent guy. He's always been conservative on all the issues. It sounds to me like a really personal thing in his life and I'd rather not respond."
Indeed, this is a very personal thing. So personal, in fact, that I believe that the government should not be involved in telling two consenting adults who love each other that they can't get married.
It would be nice if Portman and Inhofe could empathize with people who are gay, and their families, without the personal experience that put the issue into focus for them. But this is why it is so important for all of us, gay and straight, to stand up for equal rights for all.
As Portman's son educated his dad, we all need to educate our family and friends about why this issue is personal for us.
Like Portman, this is personal because I have family members who are gay, I have colleagues and students who are gay and I have good friends who are gay. And I wish for all of them a life of happiness shared with someone they love. I hope all of my readers will express to others, in one form or another, how this issue is personal for them.