The two couples who met with Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) last Thursday weren't looking for a fight. As parents of gay children, their goal was simply to speak with their elected official -- parent to parent -- and perhaps help him see the harm of his recent, much publicized anti-gay diatribe.
What they got instead, according to their own accounts, was a patronizing lecture.
"He was condescending, belligerent and arrogant," said Melina Waldo. "He filibustered us."
(Photo by Michael Wichita )
Waldo, along with her husband, Dick, and a second couple, Fran and Allen Kirschner, met with Santorum as part of an annual lobbying effort spearheaded by Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). The event, which always takes place near Mothers' Day, rang with a sense of urgency this year, coming in the wake of Santorum's remarks linking homosexuality to incest and bigamy.
Santorum blasted the Associated Press story that published those comments, claiming they were taken out of context, and clarified that his problem is not with homosexuals, only "homosexual acts."
But at the meeting on Thursday, Santorum became extremely argumentative with the four parents, who had traveled from their homes in Philadelphia and New Jersey to speak with him. The meeting, originally scheduled for ten minutes, ran for nearly half an hour because of Santorum's haranguing. After the meeting, the parents were visibly shaken.
"He let us speak in the beginning, and then just cut us off and went on this tirade about the law and how he knows it better than we do," said Allen Kirschner. "I couldn't hear it, so I just walked away. I had tears in my eyes."
"He was not nice," added his wife. "Melina mentioned to him that she and I are Catholic, and he told us that we should then know about the Catholic teaching [regarding homosexuality], that we should read this and that. We left feeling very hurt."
Erica Wright, a spokesperson for Senator Santorum, declined to comment on the meeting.
"We went to connect on a human level," said Melina Waldo, "and we found no humanity there."
Like virtually every PFLAG member, gay rights activism was something none of the four foresaw in their future. Both couples are from liberal areas -- the Kirschners live in the Center City neighborhood of Philadelphia, the Waldos, originally from Pennsylvania, now reside in the upper-middle class New Jersey suburb of Haddonfield.
Of the four, Dick Waldo is the only Republican. He voted for Santorum twice and works as a consultant for traditionally conservative clients, including members of the gas and oil industry. But it was his wife Melina who originally had the most trouble accepting their son's sexuality.
"I was concerned that his life would be difficult, that there would be people who didn't like him simply because he was gay," she said.
The Kirschners were similarly devastated when their daughter Kerry came out as a lesbian at 19.
"I couldn't get through a whole day," said Mrs. Kirschner, now the president of PFLAG-Philadelphia. "Even though I knew what was in [the coming out letter she wrote us], I completely fell apart when I read it.
"My immediate reaction was worrying that she'd be discriminated against," she said, a fear that gets validated every time a politician like Santorum gets vocal about his views on the subject.
Since his initial remarks, Santorum has defended his position mainly by citing the right to privacy -- or rather, by citing his belief that a right to privacy doesn't exist.
"If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then...you have the right to anything. It all comes from, I would argue, this right to privacy that doesn't exist, in my opinion, in the United States Constitution," said Santorum in the unedited version of the AP interview transcript.
"So much for limited government," said Mrs. Waldo, referring to an ideal that conservatives like Santorum traditionally espouse. "How ironic that as we fight for Iraqi freedom abroad, we're losing it at home."
Privacy laws are a major factor in the gay rights movement, most recently up for debate in Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court case that will decide the constitutionality of state sodomy laws. The idea of privacy as a non-right remained the keystone of Santorum's argument when he met with the couples.
"I think he's just using that as an excuse," said Mrs. Kirschner. "He kept bring it back to ‘the law of the land,' but Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, too, and we all know what his position on that is."
"He says that it's about privacy laws, but wink-wink, everybody knows it's really about those ‘awful gays,'" said Mrs. Waldo. "People like Santorum purport to care about young people, passing [legislation like] the Amber Alert bill. What we need is a law protecting our children from people like Senator Santorum. He's a threat to our kids."
PFLAG Executive Director David Tseng, who is gay, compared Santorum's remarks to schoolyard bullying.
"His words brought back that flood of memories of what it was like in high school when you felt unsafe," said Tseng. "We obey the laws, pay our taxes, care about this country, love our families, observe American traditions. What does it take to be more than a second-class citizen in this country?"
"We are the people who allow him to have that office in that building, that allow him, in fact, to make his vile verbiage a part of the public forum," said PFLAG Senior Communications Advisor Alice Leeds. "All we're asking is that he act like the statesman he was elected to be."
And though her husband helped him get elected, Melina Waldo herself has had it out with Santorum in the past. When the Waldos lived in Pennsylvania in the early nineties, she confronted the young congressman as he was leaving church one day.
"I told him he wasn't representing the people of his district -- the steel workers, the people who needed health care. I said to him, ‘Don't you think it's time you started thinking about the people who don't have all the advantages that you do?'"
She recalls Santorum basically running away.
"Even then, he couldn't deal with opposition."