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May 19, 2015 4:24 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Locally Wed Couple Are Plaintiffs In National Lawsuit To Have Same-Sex Marriage Recognized

A couple married in Water Mill, Thomas Kostura and Ijpe DeKoe, are taking their battle to have their marriage recognized nationwide to the United States Supreme Court in what could be a historical decision for marriage equality. COURTESY ALBERTO R. LAMMERS
May 20, 2015 8:46 AM

When his deployment to Afghanistan was delayed by one week just after the New York Marriage Equality Act went into effect, giving same-sex couples the right to marry, Army Reservist Ijpe DeKoe knew that he and his longtime boyfriend, Thomas Kostura of Springs, had been presented with an opportunity.

Having discussed marriage before, the couple, who first met as teenagers, decided to take the plunge.

Eleven days after the Equality Act went into effect—and just one day before Mr. DeKoe left on a nine-month deployment—they tied the knot in a simple ceremony at the Incarnation Lutheran Church in Bridgehampton on August 4, 2011.

Four years later, Mr. DeKoe and Mr. Kostura are still considered a happily married couple by New York State. But in their new home state of Tennessee, where Mr. DeKoe is stationed, they are not—at least not by the state government. The two are considered strangers, or roommates and friends at best, because the state does not recognize same-sex couples as married.

After considering their options, and what the legal status of their marriage would mean to them personally, Mr. DeKoe and Mr. Kostura have taken their fight to the next level—and are one of three couples listed as plaintiffs in the U.S. Supreme Court case that could decide the fate of same sex-marriages nationwide.

“We originally had some trepidation about moving to a traditionally conservative state, but we found that our marriage is just the same as everyone else’s,” Mr. DeKoe said in a phone interview from Tennessee last week. “Everyone that we have met has had total respect for us, and we want that to be recognized.”

Thom And Ijpe’s Story

While working as teenagers at a Rhode Island camp, where they met, the young couple had dated but ultimately decided to remain only friends. Mr. DeKoe went on to join the Army Reserves, while Mr. Kostura enrolled at the University at Buffalo, before moving to Springs to work at Heather Dunn & Co., an interior design company owned by his father, Richard Kostura, and his stepmother, Heather Dunn-Kostura.

Twelve years later, in 2011, Mr. Kostura and Mr. DeKoe rekindled their romance while on vacation in Maryland, and they have been committed to each other ever since. They were making plans to move in together—and had discussed possibly going to Connecticut or Maryland to get married—when Mr. DeKoe was notified that he was being transferred to Fort Dix, New Jersey, to prepare for deployment to Afghanistan.

On June 24, 2011, while Mr. DeKoe was stationed in New Jersey, New York became the sixth state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage, and the Marriage Equality Act officially went into effect on July 24 of that year. At the same time, Mr. DeKoe found out that his deployment was being postponed for one week, and that he was being granted a three-day leave for personal time before his unit left.

Everything had lined up for the couple.

“Thom was living and working in New York at the time, and I had just enough time between when I was going to be leaving to get out to the Hamptons to see him, so it just kind of worked out,” Mr. DeKoe said. “It really was only able to have happened because my flight was delayed a week—that opened up some time. It really just all worked out.”

Immediately, the couple started planning and called the Reverend Dr. Katrina D. Foster, the pastor at the Incarnation Lutheran Church on Montauk Highway in Bridgehampton since 2010, who also serves at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Amagansett. Although she had never met the couple, Rev. Foster was instantly on board to marry them, and, noting the time constraints on their engagement and Mr. DeKoe’s service with the military, waived the church fees for the wedding.

The next day, she met with the couple for pre-marriage counseling—and she married them immediately after.

“Ijpe called me and said that he had an extra day, and would I please marry them,” she recalled this week. “That is how we met. They came in the next day for counseling, and they seemed like wonderful human beings, so their wedding was an hour later.”

Mr. Kostura recalled that it was not a typical August wedding in the Hamptons. With limited time and options, the couple were married in matching khakis and white T-shirts, while Mr. Kostura’s father and stepmother watched before returning to work. Mr. Kostura and Mr. DeKoe celebrated with a pizza picnic on a Napeague beach with a bottle of Prosecco.

“It was a very small, rushed wedding that we were both late to,” Mr. Kostura joked. “It was perfect. It was us.”

‘The Right Thing’

At the time, none of the five people on hand at the church could have imagined the impact this marriage would have on an entire nation.

Rev. Foster said she cannot describe the feeling of being involved in such a historic moment. The reverend, who has been married to her wife, Pamela Kallimanis, for 17 years, but only legally since 2010, said she is honored to be involved.

“Pride does not really cover it sufficiently,” she said. “I didn’t realize at the time that this particular wedding could change our nation—it was just the right thing to do at the time. But to be a part of it, even just a small part of doing the right thing, and to see that snowballing into helping our country make the promises of our Constitution and Bill of Rights true for everyone is deeply satisfying and amazingly rewarding.”

Their honeymoon lasted one night, as Mr. Kostura dropped his new husband off at Fort Dix at 7 a.m. the next day, and he was in Afghanistan for the first nine months of their marriage.

“It was really hard,” Mr. Kostura remembered. “It was literally the next morning. It was a bit of a roller-coaster ride for the next few months, but my friends and family were extremely supportive, as well as a bunch of his friends that I had never even met.”

Luckily, Mr. DeKoe returned safely to the United States, at which point the couple had three days to move to his new station in Tennessee.

Taking Their Case
To The Supreme Court

Naturally, they had some hesitation when Mr. DeKoe was transferred to an Army Reserve Center at the Naval Support Activity Mid-South base outside of Memphis, Tennessee. While the people of Tennessee have a reputation for being friendly, the couple knew that state law would not recognize their marriage.

And at the time, neither did the U.S. military. Although military regulations changed in 2013 when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed, the couple was still based in Tennessee, meaning that when they were off base, Mr. Kostura was not considered Mr. DeKoe’s legal husband.

The ramifications of that distinction were scary, and they led to a lot of questions for the pair. What if one of them became sick? Hospitals in Tennessee were not obligated to release patient information to a same-sex partner, because they were technically not family. What if they wanted to adopt children? Only one would be able to be listed as the child’s parent. Health insurance would be an issue for the remainder of their stay in Tennessee.

“Memphis has been very open and welcoming about different people moving here, and it is true,” Mr. Kostura said. “It was wonderful to see the difference between what we pictured could be and what Memphis is. The problem is the law.”

Eventually, the couple was contacted by the Tennessee Equality Project, a national center for gay and lesbian rights that was looking for a Memphis couple to participate in a national lawsuit to have their marriage recognized. After discussing the idea, and how it would infringe on their privacy, the couple ultimately decided it was worth it to have their marriage valued in the eyes of the law as much as that of a heterosexual couple.

Further, with Mr. DeKoe stationed in Tennessee, they did not have the option of moving to a state that would recognize their commitment to each other.

“People should not have to consider the people they love or their career,” Mr. Kostura said. “Ijpe was not given the choice to quit his job and move somewhere else. For someone to have to quit is not fair, and we want everyone to be in a position to make a fair decision.”

Before The Courts

In January of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court justices agreed to hear the case in which Mr. DeKoe and Mr. Kostura are listed as plaintiffs, along with two other couples, April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, and James Obergefell and John Arthur. The court has been asked to make a potentially historic ruling, one closely watched by marriage equality proponents nationwide, in a case officially known as Obergefell v. Hodges.

Although it will not mark the first time the courts will make a decision on marriage equality—two years ago, the court issued a decision that said it was illegal for people in California to block gay marriages—it will be the first time the Supreme Court decides whether states can ban same-sex marriages, and whether states can refuse to recognize couples who were legally married in another state. In essence, a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs will make same-sex marriage legal in the United States.

And so, with the stakes that high, on April 28 the three couples traveled to Washington, D.C., to make their case heard. Mr. Kostura and Mr. DeKoe got to see firsthand both the supporters of marriage equality, with thousands of people encouraging them outside the courthouse, and those against, who had their own sizable crowd.

“It was interesting to see all of those people and hear all that they had to say,” Mr. DeKoe said. “We are just looking for people to be treated well and have all marriages respected.”

Awaiting Their Fate

In the days and weeks since their appearance before the Supreme Court, Mr. DeKoe and Mr. Kostura have been doing their best to get back to normal, meanwhile handling a firestorm of media requests.

Mr. Kostura has taken the time to finish up his Master of Fine Arts degree from the Memphis College of Arts, while Mr. DeKoe, who is still on active duty with the Army Reserves, is taking night classes to complete a degree in international studies from the University of Memphis.

“We have had a lot of other things going on, with just living and being married and supporting each other,” Mr. Kostura said. “It is really only when we meet with our lawyers or reporters that things change for us.”

Now it is just a waiting game, with a decision expected in the case around mid-June.

“It is all about the bigger picture,” Mr. DeKoe said. “Tennessee has always only had this one class of marriage that they are treating differently, and we are fighting so that all marriages are treated with the respect that they deserve.”

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By joe hampton (3461), southampton on May 22, 15 8:15 AM
1 member liked this comment
What a beautiful story. My good wishes and prayers are with these two gentlemen. GOD love you both.
By greeneyedlady (55), East Quogue on May 22, 15 8:43 AM
1 member liked this comment
Wow where have our priorities gone? Who cares who marries who, and why is this a big story? I'm sick of this liberal crap!!!
By chief1 (2800), southampton on May 22, 15 1:22 PM
1 member liked this comment
I agree with you when you say, "Who cares who marries who?" Same-sex or opposite-sex marriage should never be an issue under the law. But to say, "I'm sick of this liberal crap!!" reveals your shameful disregard for millions of others rights and privileges under the Constitution and Bill of Rights, mine included. "Liberty and justice for all..." is not "liberal crap." It is sad you do not understand that liberty and justice are non-partisan values woven into the very soul of this country. Granting ...more
By Ben A (1), Hampton Bays on May 26, 15 9:10 AM
Government needs to get out of the business of sanctioning marriage of any kind and thereby end the discrimination in taxation and allocation of benefits based on marital status.
By VOS (1241), WHB on May 22, 15 2:31 PM
1 member liked this comment
Two of my favirite people!
By Hrdkostura (1), East Hampton on May 23, 15 5:15 PM