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Seeking Recognition

Memphis couple is one of four from Tennessee suing the state for not recognizing their same-sex marriages.



When Ijpe DeKoe and Thom Kostura married in New York in 2011, they never imagined that two years later they'd be living in a state that, for legal purposes, considers the couple to be complete strangers.

But DeKoe is a full-time sergeant in the Army Reserves, and after returning from a tour of duty in Afghanistan in May 2012, DeKoe was transferred to the base in Millington. He and Kostura are one of four Tennessee couples named in a lawsuit filed last week challenging the constitutionality of the state's anti-recognition laws.

The laws prohibit the state from recognizing the marriages of same-sex couples who were married in states that allow same-sex marriage. The lawsuit claims that Tennessee's refusal to recognize valid out-of-state same-sex marriages violates the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit is being spearheaded by the National Center for Lesbian Rights. The other couples named in the suit include Dr. Valeria Tanco and Dr. Sophy Jesty of Knoxville, Kellie Miller and Vanessa DeVillez of Greenbrier, and Matthew Mansell and Johno Espejo of Franklin.

"The day we got married, there was a contract saying that I am responsible for him for the rest of our lives, and he's responsible for me. If something happens, we are there to catch each other," Kostura said of DeKoe. "That is a giant commitment to make to someone else. It's disheartening that Tennessee doesn't respect that as it does with [heterosexual] couples."

Kostura and DeKoe first met when they were both counselors at Boy Scouts camp 15 years ago. The two became friends and stayed in touch for years as DeKoe moved around with the military and Kostura lived in New York. They married after learning of DeKoe's deployment to Afghanistan, just a few months after same-sex marriage became legal in New York. Because the federal government and the military recognize same-sex marriages, Kostura and DeKoe are in the position of having their marriage honored on base and ignored in the rest of the state. Kostura is allowed all the benefits of a military spouse.

All of the couples named in the suit lived in a marriage equality state and married there before moving to Tennessee. Tanco and Jesty married in New York in 2011, where they lived until the two took jobs at the University of Tennessee's College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville.

Miller and DeVillez lived in New Jersey and married in New York in 2011 but later decided to relocate to Greenbrier, Tennessee, where Miller had previously lived.

Espejo and Mansell married in California, where Mansell worked for a large law firm, in 2008. That law firm moved its offices to Nashville last year, and the couple and their two children moved there for Mansell's job.

While it's possible that this lawsuit could have a broad sweeping effect on Tennessee's gay marriage ban, Memphis attorney Maureen Holland, the local attorney involved in the suit, said the judge could choose to be as confined or as broad with his decision as he chooses.

If necessary, Holland said, future lawsuits addressing recognition for same-sex married couples who live in Tennessee and traveled elsewhere to marry and for Tennessee residents who wish to marry here may follow.

As for Kostura and DeKoe, they're hoping the judge's decision will help other Tennessee same-sex couples.

"We want the recognition [from the state], but we also want to help other couples who are not in our position with the benefit of a federal job," DeKoe said. "There are thousands of [same-sex] couples in this state who do not have federal jobs or who are state-dependent."


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