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Man tells senators: Defense of Marriage Act cost me my home

By Mallory Simon, CNN
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Senate debates Defense of Marriage Act
  • Ron Wallen says he's being forced to sell his home after the death of his partner of 58 years
  • Denied benefits under Social Security, Wallen urges repeal of Defense of Marriage Act
  • New bill would give same-sex couples same benefit rights as other married couples
  • Republicans: Marriage is for a man and woman; it's an issue for states, not feds

(CNN) -- Ron Wallen met the person that he says completed his life in 1953.

At 19, he met his match in 23-year-old Tom Carrollo. The pair spent the next 58 years together. On June 24, 2008, they were able to marry when California for a short time legalized and then began performing same-sex marriage ceremonies.

Wallen, now 77, shared his story and his struggle with the Defense of Marriage Act in a congressional hearing Wednesday in which he and others asked lawmakers to pass the Respect for Marriage Act.

Even the bill's main sponsor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, knows the legislation is unlikely to pass considering there is no Republican support for it. However, the bill has gotten a new bump of support since President Barack Obama said he now backs the repeal of DOMA, which President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996.

The Respect For Marriage Act would make it clear that any married same-sex couple is eligible for Social Security survivor benefits, filing joint tax returns and other benefits given to married couples.

Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee asked why the current law needs to be repealed now. Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the committee, and Rep. Steve King, a witness before the panel, defended DOMA, saying the institution of marriage should be only for a man and a woman.

"Orwell would have marveled at it," Grassley said of the need for legislation such as the Respect of Marriage Act.

Republicans also argued it is an issue that should be left to the states to decide -- not something that the federal government should force upon the states.

King called marriage a "sacred, cornerstone of our society" and said opening it up to change could lead to "polygamist relationships, incestuous relationships."

But for Wallen, the hearing and this fight isn't just about politics, symbolism and equality. He said it's about his life and his loss. It's also about surviving right now.

"We all know that part of the marriage vow is -- in sickness and in health," Wallen told the Judiciary Committee.

Sickness was something Wallen and Carrollo knew all too well. Carrollo, who Wallen called "my husband," was diagnosed with lymphoma, which later developed into leukemia. So as many partners do, Wallen said he did everything he could to help the person he loved weather the storm of sickness.

"Tom's illness was four years of pure hell, with more hospitalizations than I can count using both hands and feet. I was up day and night trying to make things easier and more comfortable for him, and not a month went by that I was not rushing him to the emergency room," Wallen told the lawmakers. "But, like any other married couple facing troubles, we were in it together. Tom didn't have leukemia; we had leukemia. And as rotten as those four years were, they were made ever so much easier because we had each other for comfort and love, and because we were married."

Read Wallen's statement to the committee (PDF)

When Carrollo died in March, Wallen said he lost so much of his life. But because of the Defense of Marriage Act, Wallen said he also will lose his home because he doesn't share the benefits that a married man and woman do. Due to the law, he can't collect survivor benefits under Social Security.

"You may be thinking that lots of widows and widowers downsize, and make adjustments, after the loss of their spouse. Downsizing is one thing, but panic sale of a home which is underwater, is another. That is my current reality," he told the congressional panel. "I am selling the last house I shared with my husband in a panic sale because I can't afford the mortgage and expenses. I am spending my days and nights sorting through our possessions, packing boxes to move -- even while I am still answering the condolence cards that come in the mail."

Wallen, like others who testified before the panel, spoke of the economic turmoil DOMA had caused him as well as the frustration of not being able to help loved ones make medical decisions.

"The survivor's benefit would have done for me what it does for every other surviving spouse in America -- ease the pain of the loss, help during a very difficult transition and allow time to make decisions and plan for my future alone," he said. "It is devastating to know that any married couple in the U.S. regardless of how long they were married, can depend on the survivor's benefit. Yet, I could not -- after 58 years with my spouse -- simply because we were two married men. This is unfair and unjust.

"In the end, without the survivor's benefit, I am forced to sell our home and find a new place for all the wonderful things that are the touchstones of our 58 years of togetherness."

Much of Wednesday's hearing focused on personal stories such as those of Wallen's, but there were also a few moments of emotion from some Democratic committee members -- some of whom originally supported DOMA -- who said it was time to take a look at where the United States stands on equality. They compared the marriage issue to the end of slavery and the move to allow interracial couples to marry.

Focus on the Family's Tom Minnery sat alongside those telling their personal stories about DOMA's impact on their lives. Minnery argued a change to the law was not the right thing to do. For starters, he said Americans had been making their voices heard loud and clear on the issue.

"States have seen an abundance of popular votes and legislative activity in defense of one-man, one-woman marriage," he said in a statement to the committee. "Since 1998, voters in 31 states have unapologetically endorsed the traditional definition of marriage in state ballot initiatives or referenda. Typically, these votes pass with an overwhelming majority -- with an average of 67% of the vote supporting marriage representing the affirmation of more than 39 million Americans. Forty-four states now have either constitutional amendments or statutes defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman."

Read Minnery's statement to the committee (PDF)

However, for the first time, many polls are showing thin and changing support for the validation of same-sex marriage. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll conducted on April 9 and 10 showed 51% said such marriages should be recognized as valid as opposed to 47% who did not.

Minnery also cited a study that he said showed that children perform better when they are under the care of a man and woman in a traditional marriage. But Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, attacked Minnery's characterization of the study, saying it found all marriages -- not just those between a man and woman -- were beneficial to children.

While there may not be firm action on the issue anytime soon, it was clear that many senators, regardless of their views, found it hard to argue with the emotional and financial hardships that some witnesses attributed to DOMA. For Wallen and others, it's simply about embracing a key American ideal, one that another witness invoked during his speech: "liberty and justice for all."

"This is a discriminatory law against women and men like me who share our love and commitment with a partner of the same sex," Wallen said. "All we ask is to be treated fairly, just like other loving and committed married couples. I beg you to repeal this law and allow all married couples the same protections."