It is with the deepest sorrow that I inform you of the sudden passing of Melina Waldo on Monday October 6. Melina was a long time Philadelphia board member who most recently headed up our Speaker's Bureau. She was also past chapter president , North Atlantic Regional director and PFLAG National Board Member. Melina was known for her wise council, her ability to soothe a distraught parent and here willingness to speak her mind, taking on the politicians who for years blocked LGBT civil rights.
As the parent of a gay son, I visit Washington occasionally to lobby Congress on equal rights. But nothing prepared me for the heated meeting I had with Sen. Rick Santorum (R., Pa.) two weeks ago.
Our son came out as gay during his freshman year at Penn State. Learning that he was gay was as unexpected as it was disturbing to my husband and me.
Worried about his future and afraid of losing our close relationship with him, fortunately I found a group called Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. PFLAG is a wonderful organization of caring people with whom I could discuss my fears, and learn from gay people the reality of their lives.
PFLAG’s annual “lobby days” encourage our members to go to Washington to meet with our representatives. On one of these annual trips, I had an encounter with on Capitol Hill with a clergyman who loudly interrupted me and pushed me as I was being interviewed by a reporter.
My son told me at the time: “You’re their worst nightmare, Mom!” He explained that the last thing the far right wants people to see is a mother speaking up for her gay child.
That minister is old by now and Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond are retired; but lest we advocates of equal rights for our gay loved ones grow complacent, along comes Santorum to take up the torch.
What was to have been a routine visit to Washington took on an unexpected urgency when Santorum, in an Associated Press interview discussing the upcoming Supreme Court review of the Texas sodomy law, compared our gay and lesbian children to criminals, linking the rights of homosexuals to pedophiles, polygamists and people who commit incest.
Such false and inflammatory remarks from one so high in our government could not go unanswered. Fran Kirschner, president of PFLAG Philadelphia, through great persistence, obtained an appointment with the senator.
Fran; her husband, Allen; my husband, Dick, and I set out for Washington on the morning of May 1. We hoped to appeal to Santorum on a parent-to-parent basis, not to discuss policy, especially because we were told we would have only 10 minutes.
How to express the hurt to our families, the fears about our children’s safety, and the contributions of gay and lesbian Americans?
We spoke for a few minutes with his aide—who, by the way, could teach his boss something about respect and manners—and then the senator strode in. In my heart at that moment were every gay person who ever told me his or her story, every injustice against gay people known to me, and of course, my own dear son.
As a shorthand way of putting a human face on the issue for him, I placed in front of Santorum a photo of my son and me at my 60th birthday celebration, and something else, which I described as one of my most precious possessions. He barely gave them a glance.
We tried valiantly to make him see the connection between his awful remarks and damage to our families. Hateful words give permission to those who would harm our loved ones.
We talked about our children; he lectured us on the nonexistence of the right to privacy.
We said he was elected to represent all the people of the commonwealth; he talked about his duty to uphold the Constitution (his version).
I objected to his interpretation of the right to privacy, insisting that most legal scholars did not agree with him. I told him the law can distinguish consensual acts between two adults expressing their love for one another and incest. He told me that he was a lawyer, implying, of course, that I am not.
He was arrogant, belligerent, argumentative and condescending. His vigorous defense of himself stretched the meeting to a half hour or more.
He blamed the media for the uproar: He was misquoted, misunderstood, taken out of context. I wondered what had become of the virtue of taking responsibility for one’s words and deeds that conservatives love to preach to others.
I found in him the perfect incarnation of the closed mind. And, yes, as reported, he did trip over a chair in his haste to leave the meeting.
The story, I believe, has implications far beyond the gay community and its supporters, numerous though we are. Santorum and others like him have a view of our beloved country at odds with what the vast majority of Americans want.
The irony of our having just waged a war for the freedom of Iraqis as we lose our rights at home should not escape our notice. I believe Santorum and his far-right supporters oppose civil rights for gay citizens. The question for all Americans is: Who’s next?
Oh, and that most precious possession I tried to get the senator to look at? It was a birthday card from my son that showed a child drawing a heart in the sand. It reads: “Before I could spell it, before I could say it, I loved you, Mom.”
Melina never quit. Her testimony in 2008 in favor of marriage equality is just as moving, just as powerful, just as strong.
Watch, listen...and then take a moment and consider how you might continue Melina's work as you move forward.