The Unexpected Personal Connection Behind the DOMA Decision

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Photo: Joshua Roberts/Corbis

In the spring of 2009, I knew three things about Edith Windsor. First, she was a math geek, an apparent computer genius who had worked for many years as a software programmer at IBM. Second, she had been hit with a huge estate-tax bill after her spouse, Thea Spyer, had died. And third, she was hard of hearing.

That third fact was the reason I walked four blocks from my West Village apartment to hers on the morning of April 30. Edie and I had never met, but we had spoken the day before about whether I would be willing to help her file a lawsuit to get those estate taxes back. She was having trouble hearing me over the phone, so I said, “Why don’t I just come over and see you tomorrow? We can talk about it in person.”

The next morning, I walked to her building, one of Manhattan’s massive 1950s white-brick complexes just north of Washington Square Park. The doorman sent me up, and as I knocked, I was expecting to be greeted by a nerdy elderly lesbian in a flannel shirt and comfortable shoes. But when Edie opened the door, I stared at her, dumbfounded. She was a knockout — a slender, impeccably dressed woman with a blonde bob, a string of pearls, and perfectly manicured nails. It took me a moment to compose myself, but after Edie’s “Come in,” I followed her into the apartment.

And then I was dumbfounded all over again. The apartment looked exactly as I remembered it from the summer of 1991, the first time I had been there.

I was 24 then, just starting to come out as a lesbian, and for the first time in my life, I was seriously depressed and anxious. I had asked around for therapist recommendations, and one name kept popping up: Thea Spyer. I didn’t know Thea from a hole in the wall, but she had a reputation as a talented and caring psychologist who understood “gay issues,” so I called her to set up an appointment. I saw Thea for only two sessions, right in that very apartment, before moving to Boston later that summer.

Eighteen years had passed since then. But when I walked into Edie’s living room, it was exactly the same as I remembered it from those two therapy sessions so long ago. And as I looked at the chair where Thea had sat while I, sitting across from her, had poured out my fears, my heart began to pound.

“I’m sorry,” I told Edie. “I need a minute.” I had known, of course, when I was walking over that this was the same apartment where I had met with Thea, but I did not expect to feel it so viscerally; walking into that room felt like returning to the scene of an accident, and I experienced emotions that I had not felt in years. I took a deep breath and told Edie, “I’ve actually been here before” — and then I told her why.

In the summer of 1991, I had just graduated from law school at Columbia University and was living in a tiny one-room studio apartment at 80th and Amsterdam while studying for the bar exam. My parents had flown in for a visit from my hometown of Cleveland on the last weekend in June — coincidentally, the weekend of New York’s Gay Pride Parade (as it was then called). On that Sunday morning, as my parents made their way through Manhattan to my apartment, they found themselves having to navigate around the parade.

My mother happened to see then–Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, the mother of one of my college roommates, riding in the parade in support of gay rights. By the time she and my father got to my apartment, she was in quite a state about the whole thing.

“I can’t believe Ruth Messinger would actually join in a gay parade,” she said.

“Okay, Mom,” I said. “Enough.” For about a thousand reasons, this was not a conversation I wanted to have with her.

My mother ignored me and kept going, criticizing the very idea of a “pride” parade: “It’s just horrible seeing all these mobs of gay people marching openly in the streets.”

“Mom, enough already,” I told her. “I don’t want to hear this.”

But she continued, “Well, I’m just saying, I think it’s horrible.” And that was about all that I could take.

“Stop!” I snapped. “Just stop it! Enough already!” Now she turned to look at me, her eyes narrowing.

Why do you want me to stop?” she asked. “What’s the matter? Are you gay or something?”

I stared at her, shaking. I had started seeing my first girlfriend only a few months earlier, but I had known for much longer that I was a lesbian, so this was a moment I had been dreading for years. I was trembling, scared of how my parents might react, but now I was angry as well.

“Yes,” I told her. “I’m gay.”

My mother did not say a word. She simply walked to the edge of the room and started banging her head against the wall. Bang. Bang. Bang.

I watched for a moment in complete shock, and then somehow, in one of the saner moments of my life, I managed to turn and walk out of my own apartment. My mother’s reaction was so over the top that there was no way to engage with her. So I left and went to a friend’s place a few blocks away to try to calm down. I had known that my mom would not be happy about this news, but her reaction was even worse than I had expected. And it only served to confirm my fears about what my life would be like now that I had finally admitted out loud that I was gay.

For a newly out gay person in 1991, there was little reason to expect that a normal life was possible. This was pre-Ellen, pre–Will & Grace — a time when most gay characters in Hollywood movies tended to be sad, lonely, or dying, or all of the above. The AIDS epidemic was raging, the antigay Religious Right was gathering steam, and laws still on the books in many states made sexual relationships between gay people a criminal offense.

Ever since high school, I had suspected that I might be gay, but I couldn’t really confront the issue until my third year of law school, in part because I was terrified of the very reaction that my mother had just had. The consequences seemed clear: Being gay meant losing the love and support of your family. It meant never being able to get married or to start a family of your own. It meant living a covert life on the fringes of society, a life where none of the promises of a happy, secure adulthood applied. I didn’t feel empowerment or relief when I came out, I felt depression and despair. And my mother’s reaction sent me into a downward spiral.

And then I went to see Thea Spyer.

When I walked into her apartment for our first session, just a few weeks after the incident with my mother, I was immediately struck by Thea’s commanding presence. She had a Hepburn­esque, high-cheekboned beauty, and a regal bearing. She was also a quadriplegic. Thea had been diagnosed with a particularly virulent form of multiple sclerosis back in 1977, and by 1991 she was using a wheelchair and had only limited use of her hands. Yet even though her body was weak, she exuded strength, calm, and self-assurance, three qualities I had in very short supply at that time.

In that first session, I told Thea about my deepest fears: that I would never have a normal life, a successful relationship, close ties with my family, or a family of my own. For years, my mother and I had talked almost every day, but since the episode in my apartment, we had not spoken at all. I missed her terribly, but there did not seem to be any way to bridge the enormous rift my coming out had created between us. And even though I had finally allowed myself to become involved with a woman, I had no expectation that my current relationship would last. It seemed self-evident that by admitting I was gay, I had scuttled any chance of ever being at peace with myself. I had never felt so alone, and I saw no way to make it better.

And then Thea told me about her own long-term relationship with a brilliant mathematician named Edie. She and Edie had been together for 25 years by then, living together as a committed couple through thick and thin, in sickness and in health. Their relationship had started in the 1960s, pre-Stonewall, at a time when it was even more difficult to be gay. But they had persevered and continued to love each other through the decades, building a stable and joyful life together. It is unusual for a ­psychologist to talk so much about herself or her spouse during a therapy session, but Thea’s message to me was clear: It was possible to have a fulfilling relationship and a happy life, even if you happened to be a lesbian. She and Edie were the proof.

Thea’s words gave me the comfort I desperately needed. I only saw her for one more session before moving to Boston, but I never forgot the sense of relief I felt after talking with her. At last I had heard from someone who knew and could prove that it was possible to create the kind of life I wanted, one that included a lifelong partner, strong family ties, and maybe even children of my own one day.

Eighteen years later, when I walked into Edie and Thea’s apartment, I had created that life for myself. I had a fascinating job, a close relationship once again with my parents, a loving wife named Rachel, and our amazing son, Jacob — my life was full of fulfillment and purpose. I had everything that I had ever wanted, and Thea Spyer was the one who had first given me the strength to think it was possible.

So that morning in 2009, as Edie Windsor described her situation to me — her 44-year relationship with Thea, the marriage they had celebrated when they were in their 70s, and the federal government’s refusal to acknowledge that relationship —­ all I could think was, I will do this for Thea. In Yiddish (which I had grown up with since my maternal grandmother, Belle, was fluent), the word bashert means, in its most basic sense, “it was meant to be.” In other words, it was as if God had dropped this case in my lap as a way to pay Thea back for helping me so much through some of my darkest days.

Excerpted from Then Comes Marriage: United States v. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA by Roberta Kaplan with Lisa Dickey. Copyright © 2015 by Roberta Kaplan. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.