Widower reflects on end of DOMA & loss of partner of 58 years at Cheers to 10 Years

This week, at Freedom to Marry's Cheers to 10 Years event celebrating the tenth anniversary of the first marriages between same-sex couples in the United States - and Freedom to Marry's own 10th anniversary of being founded by Evan Wolfson, Ron Wallen joined us on stage to bring a personal face to why marriage matters so deeply to same-sex couples.

His story, which he shared with Freedom to Marry in 2011, has been a vital part of our work to make the case that the so-called Defense of Marriage Act hurts families across the country. When Ron's partner of 58 years, Tom, passed away in 2011, Ron was denied Tom's Social Security payments because DOMA prohibited the federal government from respecting the couple's marriage, and soon after, unable to pay for his home, Ron lost his house. He testified about his story before the 2011 U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Respect for Marriage Act, which sought to fully repeal DOMA, in 2011. 

This week, he shared the story with us at Cheers to 10 Years and reflected on the work that's left to be done in the campaign to win marriage nationwide. Here are his remarks:

I’m so very glad to be here tonight, to share in the pride of accomplishment that Freedom to Marry and supporters like you must be feeling – deservedly so – after ten years of incredible success.

Ten years is a long time. I don’t know if Yogi Berra said this or not, but it’s true all the same: It ain’t over till it’s over. Yes, we’ve had great wins, and yes, we’ve got momentum, but we mustn’t lose sight of the goal: it won’t be over until the freedom to marry is available to every couple in every state from coast to coast, with the universal recognition of the protections and responsibilities those marriages entail.

It’s the last part of that sentence that’s been especially important to me these past few years.

My late husband Tom and I were together for 55 years (in what must have been the longest engagement in history – living in sin, so it wasn’t all bad). So, when marriage for same sex couples became legal for a brief period of time in California, we happily got hitched. It was something for which we had always worked and wished, despite being confident we had everything nicely and legally taken care of as far as our own “estate” was concerned. Getting married was simply the right thing for us to do.

"Yes, we’ve had great wins, and yes, we’ve got momentum, but we mustn’t lose sight of the goal: it won’t be over until the freedom to marry is available to every couple in every state from coast to coast, with the universal recognition of the protections and responsibilities those marriages entail." - Ron Wallen

On a side note, you’d be amazed at how, after 55 wonderful years together, with everything in order, all the t’s crossed and the i’s dotted, and blessed with the approval of both our families, our perfunctory dry civil ceremony – with no frills and only one witness – turned my husband and me into blubbering emotional babies. Who ever said romance and emotion dried up in old farts, couldn’t have been more wrong.

During our three-year-marriage, we were hit with some pretty heavy problems – changes in our financial situation, and worst of all, a fatal change in Tom’s health. We fought Tom’s leukemia together as a married couple, and, even though we both were aware that the outcome would not be good, the fact that we were married brought us great comfort. Tom finally succumbed to his disease two months before the anniversary of our 58th year together.

For a variety of reasons, Tom’s social security payments exceeded mine by far. So, when he died, even though I knew that DOMA precluded me from collecting his social security benefits in lieu of mine (as was automatically the right of any other surviving widow or widower, so long as they had been called, Mr. and Mrs.), I filed for survivor benefits anyway.

What can I say? I’m a trouble maker.

As expected, the Social Security Administration denied my claim and my subsequent appeal. This happened at the same time that our finances were suffering from the ravages of the recession.

I couldn’t cover my expenses, including the mortgage, with my sharply reduced monthly fixed income. Had I been able to receive the survivor benefit, I’d have been able to squeak by.

Instead, I lost our home.

But hey, “it ain’t over, til it’s over." Right?

Fast forward to the present: After Section Three of DOMA was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, I went to the Social Security Administration to again file for survivor’s benefits. After a million delays I received what I was due – what Tom and I had worked so hard to earn. It was an enormous and much needed relief.

But the larger, more palpable point is that it’s just not fair, worse, it’s insulting. For too long, I was told my love for Tom was illegitimate by my government. Yes, things are different for me today. But just imagine the frustration of the couples who aren’t able to be married still today and are still today suffering the same injustice and insult!

It’s time for that to stop. Our love, and all that it entails, is legitimate and must be respected.

So what do we do about it?

All of us in this room must devote our resources, our intellect, our hearts, to achieving 100% marriage for everyone across the country! Only then will the courts – and yes, eventually the Supreme Court! – only then will they do the right thing and deliver equality for all.

Only THEN, will it be over!

Thank you. You know, It has not always been easy for me to tell my story. Lord knows, it’d be easier with Tom at my side. Evan after three years, there’s still something missing over here. So, I’m grateful to the team at Freedom to Marry, especially Marc Solomon, Thalia Zepatos, and Evan Wolfson, not only for the extraordinary work they do, but for their friendship, for their inspiration, and for arranging for me to meet one of my heroes, Cynthia Nixon. And, most important, for bringing me here tonight so that I may look into all of your faces and say thank you and don’t stop now, we’re so very close to winning.

Read all about the Cheers to 10 Years Event.