During Wednesday's historic Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Defense of Marriage Act, Ron Wallen, a 77-year-old veteran and resident of Indio, Calif., spoke plaintively in his allotted five minutes about how the 1996 law has cost him his home because he does not qualify for Social Security survivor benefits.
Wallen's husband, Tom Corrollo, died in March of leukemia after the couple's 58 years together. "I wake up in the morning, and forget for a minute that he is not in the kitchen making coffee," Wallen said. "Tom and I worked hard, and together we tried to live out our own version of the American dream. ... And yet, as I face a future alone without my spouse of 58 years, it is hard to believe that it is the American government that is throwing me out of my family home."
Puzzling remarks by anti-marriage equality witnesses were legion at the hearing, but perhaps no more so than those of Focus on the Family senior vice president Tom Minnery, who spoke directly after Wallen's heartfelt testimony about his group's firm stance against repealing DOMA. Minnery expressed his condolences for Wallen's loss, then seemed to offer him counseling and outreach services from his organization, which until two years ago had sponsored an "ex-gay" summit known as Love Won Out.
"I had read his prepared testimony the night before, so I knew what he was going to say," Wallen told The Advocate. "But I was shocked when he offered condolences and was in disbelief when he was offering his services. If I were looking for help, his [organization] would be the last place I would go to."
Asked what services they might provide, Focus on the Family vice president of communications Gary Schneeberger said in a statement to The Advocate, "We offer a variety of print and online resources, as well as free counseling referrals, to help people deal with the myriad challenges of life.
"We would be happy to share those with Mr. Wallen in the hope they would help him through the trials he's experienced."
Wallen was one of several witnesses who testified about the insidious consequences of DOMA, whose author, former Georgia congressman Bob Barr, has since disavowed it. Sitting with Wallen on the panel were Andrew Sorbo, a retired Connecticut teacher and principal who married his husband four months before he died of pancreatic cancer, and Susan Murray, a Vermont attorney who testified eloquently about a full range of inequities in Social Security payments, federal taxes, and death benefits as a result of DOMA.
Minnery argued, however, that such disparities were not tantamount to discrimination under section 2 of DOMA because gay couples could not legally marry anywhere in the nation when the law was passed. "[DOMA repeal] is an attempt to undermine the public policies, laws, and constitutions of the vast majority of the states for whom traditional marriage is a settled issue," he said in prepared remarks.
Minnery's testimony came under the most scrutiny by the committee, particularly in exchanges with Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who asked the Focus on the Family representative whether married same-sex couples with children are indeed "disadvantaged by not having the same financial benefits" that married opposite-sex parents enjoy.
"Well, as I say, not knowing the details of which families you are speaking of, certainly children are better off with parents in the home," Minnery replied.
"Yes or no -- it's not a trick question," Leahy said. "If you have parents legally married under the laws of the state -- one set of parents are entitled to certain financial benefits for their children, the other set of parents are denied those same financial benefits for their children -- are not those children of the second family, are they not at a disadvantage, yes or no?"
"That would be yes, as you asked the question earlier, Senator," Minnery said.
Whether same-sex couples and their families suffer as a result of the discrimination seemed immaterial to Alliance Defense Fund senior counsel Austin Nimocks, who testified that marriage equality is a threat to "responsible procreation" and that sponsors of DOMA repeal are "asking the whole of society to ignore the unique and demonstrable differences between men and women in parenthood: no mothers, no fathers, just generic parents."
"In some ways it represents the interesting turning point that we're at. We're beyond the time where they can patently discriminate us on the merits," Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese said of those who testified in opposition to DOMA repeal Wednesday. "When I think back on previous [congressional] members who felt much more freed up to patently discriminate against us, it's a refreshing place to be now. But at the same time, it's also more of a nefarious place to be, because fair-minded people hear these arguments and they don't always see them as patently bigoted."
Watch Wallen's and Minnery's testimony as well as remarks from HRC's Solmonese and Freedom to Marry's Evan Wolfson here via the archived webcast from the Senate Judiciary Committee.