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10/13/2015 02:37 pm ET

The Story You Don't Know About The Women Who Helped Overturn DOMA

Roberta Kaplan says her journey to the Supreme Court with Edie Windsor was surprisingly spiritual.
Scott Roth/Invision/AP

Here’s a twist for those fire-and-brimstone preachers who rail that same-sex marriage will incur the wrath of the Almighty and bring about the end of civilization: History-making attorney Roberta Kaplan believes she and the iconic Edie Windsor were destined to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) together, perhaps even with the help of God.

“I remember thinking --- you don’t have to be religious, I’m a religious person, but you don’t have to be – but I remember thinking that this connection, there was some higher force," she told me in an interview on SiriusXM Progress to discuss her page-turning, powerful new book, Then Comes Marriage: The United States v. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA. "The coincidence was so incredible. And I remember thinking that God was giving me a way to pay [Edie’s late wife] Thea back for helping me.”

As Kaplan explains it, she spoke with Edie Windsor on the phone in 2009, after Windsor had sought an attorney following the death of her wife, Thea Spyer, and after the federal government slapped Windsor with an estate tax bill -- something heterosexual married couples were exempt from paying after the death of a spouse -- of over $350,000.

But Kaplan knew before she walked into Windsor's apartment to discuss the case shortly after that phone call that she’d actually been in Windsor’s living room many years earlier. That was back in the 1990s, during Kaplan's third year of law school, when she was filled with fear and a sense of isolation as she was coming to terms with being a lesbian.

“I was kind of depressed and so I went around and I asked a bunch of people -- I needed a psychologist who understood ‘gay issues' -- that's the way you talked about it back then -- and the name I kept getting as a referral from people was Thea Spyer,” she said, recalling the time when, shortly after Kaplan came out to her mother, her mother “banged her head against the wall.” Spyer, who was by then in a wheelchair and suffering from multiple sclerosis, the disease took her life in 2009, talked during those sessions with Kaplan about her partner Edie Windsor, whom she married in Canada in 2007.

“It was not more than two times,” Kaplan recalled of the sessions. “I saw Thea in their apartment, in the same living room I then met Edie in all those years later. And here’s the craziest thing about it: During those two sessions -- this is a strange thing for a psychologist to do -- Thea talked to me about Edie. Typically psychologists don’t talk about their own lives. But I think Thea was persuaded that the only way she would persuade me that there was hope, that having a loving relationship, a committed relationship, the kind of family life I wanted, was to describe for me her own relationship. She she kept telling me about this woman Edie Windsor.”

That kind of compelling storytelling is one reason Then Comes Marriage stands out from other recent books about the movement for marriage equality. Kaplan recounts not only her own often difficult personal journey as a lesbian, coming out in the ‘90s to less than accepting parents (who today, she emphasizes, are fully supportive of Kaplan and proud of their immensely accomplished daughter) and pursuing a career in law; she writes about Windsor’s fascinating journey decades earlier in the 1950s, when she was a brilliant mathematician at IBM, navigating a world dominated by men and courting Spyer over a period of many years.

And Kaplan describes in detail the course of the groundbreaking DOMA case and her eventually coming to argue before the Supreme Court.  She could never have imagined, she said, that she’d be there before the high court and that her and Windsor's case would be the one that would lead to federal judges throwing out marriage bans in states across the country and eventually, to the Supreme Court ruling such bans unconstitutional.

"I didn’t think I’d ever be married to a woman," she said. “I didn’t think I’d ever have a lasting love. I thought I was destined for a life of loneliness and isolation. No way did I think any of that [taking a case to the Supreme Court] was possible, let alone that it would be me.”

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