Ijpe DeKoe, left, and his husband, Thomas Kostura, with their...

Ijpe DeKoe, left, and his husband, Thomas Kostura, with their dog, Bird, in East Hampton, on Aug. 10, 2015. The couple's lawsuit was instrumental in legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

The gravity of what Thom Kostura and his husband, Ijpe DeKoe, had undertaken struck them as they walked out of the Supreme Court and saw a massive crowd after arguments on their lawsuit challenging same-sex marriage bans.

Supporters chanted "Love Must Win." Detractors tried to drown them out.

There, on the court steps in Washington, D.C., on April 28, Kostura, an artist from Long Island, and DeKoe, a military officer -- two of 30 plaintiffs in the suit -- saw that this fight was bigger than them.

This ordinary couple, who had married in Bridgehampton in 2011, had become part of a movement that transformed one of the nation's most enduring institutions when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June.

They had agreed to get involved in the court battle -- first in Tennessee -- because of a sense of obligation forged by their upbringing. But they never thought they would be part of the case that made it to the nation's highest court.

The journey strengthened their marriage. The ruling gave them peace. Their union was now legal anywhere.

"A lot of people have fought very hard to get marriage passed in New York before for us. We kind of rode on the coattails of that benefit," DeKoe said last week in East Hampton, where Kostura's father and stepmother live. "So, it seemed incumbent that we had to do it."

The 5-4 court ruling handed down June 26 ended same-sex marriage bans in 14 states -- including Tennessee, where the Army moved the couple in 2012 after DeKoe, who is active duty in the U.S. Army Reserve with the rank of Sgt. 1st Class, ended his nine-month deployment in Afghanistan. They were married, but Tennessee didn't recognize the union.

In the court's majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy mentioned Kostura and DeKoe by name, as well as their plight. So did their attorney, who argued for the recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states.

David Kilmnick, CEO of the Bay Shore-based LGBT Network, said the ruling "brought full marriage equality to the entire LGBT community across the United States."

"For Long Islanders . . . if for some reason they either want to or have to move out of state, their marriage and the rights that come along with it will follow them no matter where they go," he said.

But DeKoe, 36, and Kostura, 32, who now live on Joint Base McGuire-Dix Lakehurst in New Jersey -- known as Fort Dix -- where DeKoe is stationed, find their notoriety hard to fathom.

"For us, it's a little strange to be told that we're making history because we really feel there are so many people who did the work for us," said Kostura, a 2000 Cold Spring Harbor High School graduate who grew up in the village of Lloyd Neck.

In October 2013, a cadre of lawyers working with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, filed a lawsuit on behalf of Kostura and DeKoe, and two other Tennessee couples who had legally married in other states.

The suit, Tanco vs. Haslam, challenged Tennessee's law prohibiting the couples' marriages as a violation of multiple provisions of the U.S. Constitution, including the equal protection clause.

Kostura and DeKoe eventually became one of 14 same-sex couples who had filed suits in federal court. The case also included two men whose partners had died.

The litigation, filed in Tennessee, Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky, claimed their 14th Amendment rights were violated when they were denied the right to marry or have marriages that were lawfully performed in other states recognized. The lower courts ruled in the plaintiffs' favor but the Sixth Circuit reversed those decisions and consolidated the cases.

Kilmnick said "Thomas and the everyday couples" involved in the cases "really represent what America is all about -- hardworking, loving people who are trying to live the American dream."

Affirming their love

Kostura and Dunn met in 1999 when they were both young adults working at a Boy Scout summer camp in Rhode Island, where DeKoe lived.

The two saw each other periodically over the years, picking up their conversations with ease. Their romance rekindled as adults in 2011.

"We trusted each other," said Kostura, who lived in East Hampton then.

That year, the couple decided to get married before DeKoe's deployment. Same-sex marriage had became legal in New York that summer.

The East Hampton judge who could marry them was unavailable until Aug. 5, the day DeKoe would begin his deployment to Afghanistan for nearly a year.

The Rev. Katrina D. Foster, a minister at Incarnation Lutheran Church in Bridgehampton, who married her wife in Connecticut, was their last resort.

On Aug. 3, 2011, DeKoe called Foster to see if she could marry them with short notice.

Foster, who had married her share of military couples, said, "There was a genuine mutuality of love and respect for each other." She waived her $800 fee.

At the Aug. 4, 2011, ceremony, the couple wore khakis and white T-shirts because DeKoe had a limited wardrobe before his deployment.

Kostura's stepmother and father were the witnesses and the only guests.

"That day meant that I wasn't alone anymore," Kostura said.

Their marriage license cost $40. They spent another $31 on pizza and a bottle of sparkling wine on their wedding night.

"We got married in the Hamptons in August for $71," Kostura said. "It felt as emotional and special as if we had spent tens of thousands of dollars and planned for a year."

Thrust into spotlight

They were living in Memphis for about a year when the opportunity arose.

A friend with the Tennessee Equality Project, a statewide nonprofit that supports the LGBT community, told them that the National Center for Lesbian Rights was seeking couples whose marriages were not recognized in the state to embark on a court battle.

DeKoe and Kostura considered the possibility of ridicule -- harm even -- if they signed onto the case.

But they couldn't pass up the chance.

"We almost felt that it would be selfish if we turned it down," Kostura said.

Kostura said he learned that sense of service from his years in the Boy Scouts and his father, a Scout leader.

DeKoe's mother, a longtime schoolteacher, and father, who worked in international development, taught him about volunteerism, DeKoe said.

They also soon realized their private love story, and court battle, had become well-known. After the Supreme Court arguments, a waitress at a Memphis restaurant recognized DeKoe's name from his credit card.

"I really hope you win," she told them.

But they never thought their case would make it to the Supreme Court -- much less be victorious. Other cases were already moving through the court system.

Kostura and DeKoe said the case forced them to talk about issues that "a lot of couples don't actively talk about," DeKoe said -- like what their marriage means to them.

For DeKoe: "It means not being alone," he said.

Last Sunday, they went to Foster's Sunday service at Incarnation. They hadn't seen her since their wedding day. They hugged her and said thank you.

"She went on faith with us and we ended up doing something far greater than us," Kostura said.

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