National Service & the Fight for Fairness

Ijpe DeKoe & Thom Kostura • Memphis, TN

Editors' Note: On November 6, 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled against the freedom to marry, reversing a lower court ruling in a federal case that declared it unconstitutional to deny the freedom to marry to same-sex couples. Now, this couple is speaking out about why marriage matters in their state and nationwide, committed to continuing the fight.

As they emerged from the chambers of the United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati, Ohio, on August 6, Thom Kostura and Ijpe DeKoe fielded questions from reporters alongside their legal team and fellow plaintiffs in their landmark marriage case that had just been heard by three judges from the 6th Circuit. The men are plaintiffs in Tanco v. Haslam, a case seeking respect for marriages between same-sex couples legally performed in other states.

"It was an experience for both of us being in court," Thom said. "We had never really done anything in court beyond simple traffic court - and we're happy to be a part of this fight."

It's been a busy year for Thom and Ijpe, who joined with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Abby Rubenfeld, the law firm of Sherrad & Roe, Maureen Holland, and Regina Lambert in filing the case last fall. Then, in March, a ruling from a federal judge affirmed that their marriage should be respected.

The men, who live in Memphis (where Thom is an artist studying at the Memphis College of Arts and Ijpe serves in the Active Duty Army Reserves), aren't involved with the case just for their own protections, of course. They're working to make the case that Tennessee, the state where they live, is ready for marriage, and they're excited to have the opportunity to represent the thousands of same-sex couples making their home in the state.

"For different-sex couples who get married and then pursue work or for whatever reason find themselves in Tennessee, the state respects them automatically," Ijpe said. "There's just this one class of couple treated differently - same-sex couples. This legal case is about treating people equally. We moved here, we're here, and our marriage should be respected."

The men are no strangers to public service - Ijpe is a member of the U.S. military, and for nearly 15 years, he has served his country in the National Guard and Army Reserves.

Ijpe has served in the military since 2000, when he enlisted in the National Guard.

"I stayed in the military, and I was deployed to Iraq. It came down to the idea of national service, an idea that's been with me for a long time."

"About a year later, the towers went down," Ijpe said. "I stayed in the military, and I was deployed to Iraq. I realized that this was much more than a simple contract - this was more than a paycheck. It came down to the idea of national service, an idea that's been with me for a long time."

Shortly after he joined the Army Reserve Active Duty in 2008, while stationed in Wisconsin and Colorado, Ijpe reconnected with Thom: The men had been friends since they were teenagers, having worked together as counselors at a Boy Scout camp back in 1998.

They took a vacation together in 2011, rediscovered their friendship, began a romantic relationship, and fell in love. They found very quickly that this was it: For each man, the other was their match for life - their partner.

They discussed plans for Thom to move to Ijpe's duty station in Memphis, even in spite of the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy banning service for openly gay soldiers that put Ijpe's job at risk. But they were quickly required to change their plans when it became clear that Ijpe was needed to fill a personnel shortage and was moved to FT Dix, NJ in order to join a mobilizing unit headed to Afghanistan later that summer.

"We had a 23-hour engagement. Our bachelor party consisted of me and him going to a bar the night before. It was hastily made but well thought-out."

Knowing that Ijpe's deployment to Afghanistan was imminent, the couple were married in East Hampton, New York were Thom was still living at the time. Just a few days after the New York legislature enacted the freedom to marry across the state and, with an engagement that lasted only a few hours, Ijpe and Thom went to the county clerk's office and got married.

"We tend to be pragmatic people," Thom laughed. "But we certainly got caught up in our emotions when we decided to get married. Ijpe was leaving just two weeks later, and he was leaving for an indeterminate amount of time. So we made the decision quickly: We had a 23-hour engagement. Our bachelor party consisted of me and him going to a bar the night before. It was hastily made but well thought-out - I just wanted to show my commitment toward him."

For nearly a year, the newlyweds were separated by Ijpe's deployment in Afghanistan, and throughout that time, they saw their marriage disrespected at every turn: Because of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited the federal government (including the U.S. military) from respecting marriages between same-sex couples, Ijpe could not add Thom to his health care. Thom could not receive married Basic Allowance for Housing or access to any military base. Ijpe could not be guaranteed emergency leave to be with Thom in the event of an emergency.

They were friends - legal strangers, despite their commitment to supporting each other, despite their exchange of marriage vows fourteen days before Ijpe's departure for Afghanistan.

Ijpe returned to Memphis one year later, in early August 2012. Since then, even though the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down the core of DOMA - even though 19 states and Washington, D.C. now allow same-sex couples to marry - Thom and Ijpe continue to be disrespected by Tennessee, the state where they live. They remain friends - legal strangers - in the state where they are building their future together.

Although the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit did not put an end to marriage discrimination in Tennessee, the couple is hopeful that soon, harmful marriage bans are struck down across the country and the idea of married couples being treated like legal strangers is relegated to history books.

One of their attorneys, Maureen Holland, reflected on the oral argument at the 6th Circuit - and the fact that Thom, Ijpe, and plaintiffs from all of the marriage cases considered earlier this summer sat in the courtroom.

"These plaintiffs have put in this time and have shared their lives with the world in order to stand up against these marriage bans," Maureen said. "Typically in a court case, lawyers argue without their plaintiffs in the room, but couples like Thom and Ijpe are very involved plaintiffs, and their presence at the hearing made a difference. It was important for the judges to see that this is a very personal, very real issue."

"We're not talking in the abstract," Maureen added. "We're talking about actual people - actual people who have actual families and are facing actual harms."