Column: A revolution in Suffolk


A lawsuit brought by an East End woman and decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 was a key forerunner of its landmark decision last month ruling same-sex marriage a constitutional right.

That ruling came as a “long-awaited bookend” to the earlier decision in United States v. Windsor, reported National Public Radio.

Windsor is Edith “Edie” Windsor. In her case the Supreme Court held that the federal Defense of Marriage Act’s interpretation of “marriage” and “spouse” to apply only to heterosexual unions was a violation of the Due Process Clause of our Constitution. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in both the Windsor case and the ruling making same-sex marriages legal in all 50 states.

A few days after the new decision, I went to a showing of the 2009 documentary “Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement.” It’s an extraordinary documentary. Its highlight is Edie and Thea Spyer, after 41 years together, getting married in 2007 in Canada where same-sex marriage was allowed. As the plot summary on the IMDb movie and TV website accurately says, it’s “a love story of two remarkable women whose commitment to each other is an inspiration to us all.”

Indeed, anyone seeing the documentary would have to be convinced that people of the same sex can love each other just like a man and a woman. It tells of Edie and Thea meeting, falling deeply in love, settling in Tuckahoe in Southampton Town and living a wonderful life. When Thea developed multiple sclerosis, they faced a huge health problem. But they managed, and their love is presented beautifully in this award-winning documentary.

Their marriage ceremony in Toronto, with Thea in a wheelchair, is truly poignant. The documentary ends with Thea’s death in 2009.

That’s when Edie’s lawsuit started, since the federal government hit Edie with $363,000 in estate taxes because even though the marriage was legal in Canada, and recognized in New York State, the Defense of Marriage Act barred the IRS from recognizing same-sex marriages. The U.S. Supreme Court threw this restriction out.

Another local element in the court’s latest decision: One of the dozen couples bringing the legal action were two men, Thomas Kostura of Springs and Ijpe DeKoe, married in 2011 at the Incarnation Lutheran Church in Bridgehampton when same-sex marriage became legal in New York.

Despite the contributions of people from Suffolk to the historic decision, there have been some in this county with no tolerance for gay people. When I began as a journalist here, there was a perverse tradition of an annual police raid on gays of Fire Island.

It took gay men taking their chances, not with the U.S. Supreme Court, but with juries of Suffolk residents to end, at long last, these raids.

I became aware of the raids when hired in 1964 by the daily Long Island Press as a police-and-courts reporter. It was sometimes like pulling teeth to get information from the Suffolk cops. But after their annual raid on Fire Island, they wanted the media to know all about it — pitching to us not only the names and addresses of those arrested but their occupations and where they worked. The police effort was clearly meant to damage those arrested, to perhaps get them fired for being gay and being arrested.

The assaults on gays in Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines were made by boatloads of cops who stormed the beach. Prisoners were dragged off in handcuffs and brought to the mainland where the men, most from New York City and frightened about casting their lot with Long Island locals, would plead guilty to various “morals” charges. Then one judge began sentencing some arrestees to jail, getting himself plenty of publicity.

The Fire Island gay community had enough, and the Mattachine Society of New York retained a feisty, rough-and-tumble Suffolk attorney, Benedict P. Vuturo, former president of the Suffolk Criminal Bar Association. He recommended those arrested in the Fire Island raid of 1968 demand jury trials.

He believed a jury of Suffolk citizens would never convict these men — and Benny was right. He won every trial. He said the victories proved “people, given all the facts, are fair. People aren’t stupid. That’s what the jury system is all about.”

That did it: The cops finally stopped their raids.

In these days of a revolution in how gay people are perceived and their rights accepted and expanded — perhaps the biggest contemporary revolution in the U.S. and many other nations, consider Ireland — what happened for many years to gays on Fire Island seems like a nightmare of another time. And it was.

Deserving huge credit are those gay men of Fire Island who stood up to prejudice and hate in a dark time. And, in recent years deserving huge credit, are the gay women and men such as Edie Windsor, Thomas Kostura and Ijpe DeKoe, whose courage and principled stands have resulted in same-sex marriage being the law of the land today.