Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Rob Portman and When "Them" is Part of "Us"
Recently, Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio) publicly came out in favor of gay-marriage—a reversal of his previously long-held position on this issue. Portman explained that it was in talks with his gay son and thinking about his happiness and rights that led to this change. Prior to discussions with his son and reflections on his belief, we can safely assume that Sen. Portman knew that a significant portion of Americans were denied what Portman described as the opportunity “to get married, and to have the joy and stability of marriage that I've had for over 26 years.” Yet, knowing this was not enough to change his mind on the issue. Rather, it was not until he was able to see the effects of this position on someone he knew intimately that Portman came to the conclusion that forced the change in his stance on marriage equality. In one sense, this is nothing new. Scholars across many disciplines have devoted significant research on how intergroup contact (i.e., interactions with individuals of different social groups) can change and, often, improve attitudes toward that group. This line of research has included research on intergroup contact and attitudes toward gay men and lesbians (see here, for example). Whereas much of this research focuses on contact between strangers or non-intimate others, the circumstances surrounding Portman’s change in attitudes represents a unique context for attitude change and contact with people representing different social groups--the context of family.
Families have and continue to be far more diverse than typically thought of in terms of diversity in ethnic, religious, political, and sexual identity (as well as many other identities) within the family. Yet, we still continue to view families as groups of individuals with the same values, attitudes, beliefs, and identities. Unfortunately, little research and practice has focused on families as a site of contact with individuals form different groups. Yet, there are great possibilities in viewing the family in this manner. Can interactions with family member with different religious beliefs influence interfaith attitudes? How are attitudes toward aging shaped or changed by relationships with grandparents? Can views on issues related to ethnicity shift because of interethnic family relationships? In short, what are the potential benefits (and consequences) when “them” is actually one of “us?” As demonstrated in the case of Sen. Portman, attitudes can change not just toward the individual but also toward the group as a whole. However, this is not always the case. Perhaps family members accept each other simply because they are family. But, still see no dramatic change in more general attitudes toward the group. Or, unfortunately but by no means uncommon, family relationships may be detrimentally changed due to the recognition of different ethnic, religious, sexual, and many other identities that individuals simply cannot overcome. We know, for instance, that the Portman case is not representative of all families and parent-child relationships. In short, we should view families as both a “significant site for development and transformation of intergroup attitudes.” Under the right circumstances and through more personalized interactions, families hold great promise for improving intergroup relationships as they are a "more intimate group where discourse and dialogue can exist perhaps more easily than other contexts” (Rittenour & Soliz, 2012 in the Handbook of Intergroup Communication).