"Wow. What a day." With those opening words, civil rights lawyer Roberta Kaplan began a powerful opening keynote speech at the 2015 American Library Association annual conference in San Francisco. Her remarks came just hours after a historic Supreme Court decision legalized same-sex marriage, and two years to the day since the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a landmark gay rights victory that Kaplan argued, and writes about in her new book, Then Comes Marriage: United States v. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA. The talk also came at the start of what should be an especially festive Pride weekend in the Bay Area.
In a deeply personal address, Kaplan went on to speak movingly about her own journey in life, and her remarkable connection to the Windsor case. The case dates back to 2009, when Edie Windsor's wife, Thea Spyer, passed away, leaving Windsor as her sole heir. But because DOMA forbid the federal government from recognizing Windsor and Spyer's marriage, Windsor was hit with a $363,053 bill for federal estate taxes. Had their marriage been recognized, Windsor would have faced no federal estate taxes. Kaplan agreed to take Windsor's case, and after years of litigation, the Supreme Court found DOMA unconstitutional, paving the way forward for same-sex marriage.
But Kaplan's talk was as much about her own personal journey, as the landmark legal victory. As a struggling young lesbian, Kaplan had been treated by Spyer, a psychologist who specialized in gay issues. "I was 24 then, and just starting to come out as a lesbian and for the first time in my life I was seriously depressed and anxious," Kaplan told the audience, recalling the moment when she came out to her mother, in 1991, during Gay Pride weekend in New York. Her mother did not say a word, but simply banged her head against a wall.
"I had known that my mom would not be happy about this news, but her reaction was even worse than I had expected and only served to confirm my deepest fears as to what life would be like now that I finally admitted that I was gay," Kaplan told the audience. "For a newly out gay person in 1991, there was very little reason to expect that a whole life was possible. This was pre-Ellen, pre-Will and Grace, and a time when most gay characters in Hollywood tended to be sad, lonely, ill, dying, or all of the above. The AIDS epidemic was raging the anti-gay religious right was gathering steam. Laws still on the books in many states made it a crime to be a homosexual. The consequences were clear to me: being gay meant losing the love and support of your family and never being able to get married or 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 stable adulthood applied. I didn't feel empowerment or relief when I came out. I felt depression and despair."
It was her sessions with Thea Spyer that pulled Kaplan out of that despair. "Thea told me about her relationship with a brilliant mathematician named Edie Windsor." she recalled. "Thea's message to me was clear. It was possible to have a fulfilling relationship and a happy life even if you're a lesbian. She and Edie were the proof. I never forgot the sense of relief I felt after talking to her."
Years later, in 2009, when Windsor approached Kaplan about taking her case, Kaplan, said all she could think about was doing it for Thea. "I know this sounds incredibly corny," she said, "but I felt at the time as if God had dropped the case in my lap as a way to pay Thea back for helping me so much through some of the darkest days of my life."
Kaplan added that she now has all of the things in life she thought she would never have: a wife, children, and close ties to her family. And her mother, Kaplan stressed, has also evolved on the issue. "Not only are we incredibly close today, not only is she desperately in love with her grandson, Jacob, but she has apologized dozens and dozens of times for her behavior in my apartment that day. And that is something to be celebrated. Part of the secret of this crazy thing we call life is learning to grow and change as my mother did."
Kaplan noted that just as he did two years ago in the Windsor case, Justice Anthony Kennedy's decision in Obergefell repeatedly stressed a key word: dignity. "It is all too easy in today's world of Twitter, of Instagram, of Fox News and MSNBC, to fall prey to a pervasive kind of cynicism. To assume that everything is part of some big, inside game and that cases don't get decided on the merits but for other less principled reasons. But I'd like to offer today's decision in Obergefell, and the 2013 decision in Windsor, as an antidote to that kind of cynicism."