Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman announced Friday he supports same-sex marriage, making him the only sitting GOP senator—but far from the first conservative—to come out in support of extending marriage rights to gays and lesbians.
In interviews with newspapers and a concurrent op-ed published by The Columbus Dispatch, Portman said he started to change his mind on the issue two years ago when his son, then a freshman at Yale, told him that he is gay.
"Ronald Reagan said all great change in America begins at the dinner table, and that's been the case in my family," Portman wrote in the editorial.
"British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he supports allowing gay couples to marry because he is a conservative, not in spite of it. I feel the same way," Portman wrote. "We conservatives believe in personal liberty and minimal government interference in people's lives. We also consider the family unit to be the fundamental building block of society."
Portman's story isn't unique within the Republican Party. In 2011 Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen—who has a transgender child—became the first Republican co-sponsor of a bill that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. The Wall Street Journal reported that in November 2011 then New York Rep. Nan Hayworth, a Republican with a gay son, became one of three GOP members of the congressional LGBT Equality Caucus.
Portman says he now supports a repeal of section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages conducted legally in individual states, The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported. The Obama administration stopped defending that part of the law in 2011 after courts ruled it unconstitutional, leading to House Republicans' intervention to defend it. The issue is currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. Portman says he doesn't support forcing states to recognize same-sex marriages conducted in other states.
There are currently nine states that recognize same-sex marriage, in addition to Washington, D.C. In November supporters won referendums to make the change in Maryland, Maine and Washington state—a first after years of victory for same-sex marriage bans.
Several high-profile Republicans in addition to Portman support legalizing same-sex marriage, including former Vice President Dick Cheney. At least one former Republican senator—current Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who won the office as an independent—does as well.
At the state level Republican supporters have proved crucial to legalization of same-sex marriage. In New York a handful of Republican legislators in the state Senate provided the margin of victory in a 2011 vote. In 2012 a veto-proof Republican supermajority in the New Hampshire legislature rejected a bill that would have repealed same-sex marriage.
Outside of the United States the conservative prime ministers of the United Kingdom—who was referenced in Portman's op-ed—and New Zealand are leading legislative pushes to legalize same-sex marriage. President Barack Obama opposed same-sex marriage as recently as May 2012, when he announced that he "evolved" to support it.