As raucous as this Sunday’s Gay Pride Parade will be, the one that happened six years ago was especially fabulous. Just days before, the Supreme Court had overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, the law forbidding LGBTQ people to marry.
What most people don’t know is that the lead attorney on the case, Roberta Kaplan, had to fight her own battles before he could win the war against DOMA. Kaplan comes across as invincible, a Wonder Woman of the courtroom armored in a pantsuit and Star of David necklace. But she says she couldn’t have contended with her culture, the closet or her mother without the help of her spouse, Rachel Lavine.
“They are definitely an inspiration to me, both of them,” said the couple’s rabbi, Jan Urbach, of the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons. “They do different work in different spheres, but they’re both doing amazing things in the world.”
On paper, perhaps, Kaplan and Lavine are not so different. They’re both in their early 50s. They’re both lawyers, although Lavine doesn’t practice law; instead, she’s an activist who has worked in city and state government and also in the state’s Democratic party. They’re both people whose politics are among the most important things about them. They’re proudly liberal, and proudly Jewish, and tend to see those things closely connected, they agreed during an interview over lunch in their apartment in Manhattan’s West Village. The place is more bluestocking than corporate lawyer, which Kaplan has been and still is. It’s covered in books and art and, in their 13-year-old son Jacob’s room, Lego. There’s a couch in the kitchen to facilitate delicious conversation and a most delightful dog, a Goldendoodle named Sizzle.
Their respective childhoods were very different, though. Lavine characterizes those differences as a matter of “East Coast Jewish vs Midwestern Jewish,” the implication being that the former are more comfortable with themselves, and more brash and bold because of it, while Midwestern Jews are the rule-followers, prim and proper, and too comfortable with any status quo.
Lavine grew up Connecticut, where her father, David Lavine, was a member of the state legislature for 18 years. In the introductory section of her blog, “That Kind of Liberal,” she reminisces fondly about politicking with her father, an early environmentalist, by bagging the tiny tree seedlings that were his calling card to voters instead of, say, campaign buttons. He was a Democrat in a conservative, rural part of the state, she said; there also weren’t very many Jews around. And not only that — her family was Jewish, but with a bit of a twist. Lavine’s mother Gladys wasn’t Jewish, and what’s more, her mother’s father was Armenian. Gladys Lavine was an artist and an education activist who also served in her town’s government.
“We were culturally Armenian and religiously Jewish,” Lavine said. “The food was Armenian.”
Kaplan was born and raised in Cleveland. Her family was a pillar of the Jewish community: Her grandfather had been one of the founders of the biggest Conservative synagogues there. Her father owned a company that manufactured roof coating; her mother taught history at a community college. And while her parents started to celebrate their daughter’s intelligence and verbal gifts as soon as she started to talk, her mother also cherished certain dreams for her as a Jewish woman.
Her mother was a feminist and her parents were liberals, but Kaplan knew she was expected to reproduce the family she’d grown up in: suburban, with husband and children. Kaplan came out to her parents in 1991, right as she was about to graduate from law school, as she recounts her memoir of the DOMA case, “Next Comes Marriage” (W.W. Norton & Company). Upon hearing the news, her mother “simply walked to the edge of the room and started banging her head against the wall. Bang. Bang. Bang.”
Kaplan’s father and grandmother facilitated a reconciliation between mother and daughter, but Kaplan still struggled for years after law school with how out she could be, especially at work. In the late 1990s, Kaplan was working at a blue-chip New York law firm and technically out, but still being very careful not to draw attention to her personal life.
Then she met Lavine, at Rosh Hashanah services at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the LGBTQ synagogue in Manhattan. She didn’t have those struggles. Lavine grew up being different — a Democrat among Republicans, a Jew among Christians, an Armenian among Jews — and by the time she came of age, she was ready to revel in them.
“Twenty years ago, people thought when you were out as a lesbian it was this huge in-your-face thing. That you should apologize for it or ask someone’s permission,” Lavine recalled. “And I was like, ‘You’re lucky if I like you.’”
They fell in love, and Kaplan knew that being with Rachel would require her to “burn the closet door altogether.”
“I was drawn to Rachel’s fearless, outspoken nature, but it also made me anxious — especially when it brushed up against my own lingering internalized homophobia,” Kaplan wrote in “Then Comes Marriage.”
Lavine’s self-confidence created something of a culture clash when Kaplan introduced her then-girlfriend to her parents.
“They expected me to be a lot more meek,” Lavine said.
They got over it, and even came to appreciate Lavine’s bold approach. By the time the two women married in 2005 — in Canada, legally, and in the United States, ritually, by Uhrbach — Kaplan’s mother was thrilled to participate in what Kaplan calls their Big Gay Wedding. Uhrbach officiated in defiance of the Conservative Movement’s then-ban on gay marriage.
Their wedding also marked a turning point in the legal fight for gay rights, because the thrill and power of being married — and to such a brave woman — was part of what pushed Kaplan to work on the fight for marriage equality in New York.
“I don’t know if I would have done that case if I hadn’t been kind of indoctrinated by Rachel,” Kaplan said. “But by then we’d been together for quite some time, already six years, and we were trying to get pregnant and we were planning on getting married.”
Kaplan and her team lost that case, but it set up her up to take on the national prohibition against gay marriage enshrined in DOMA. Edie Windsor, the plaintiff in that case, was a widow required to pay more in federal taxes on her wife’s estate than she should have to, because the United States government didn’t recognize their marriage. Windsor took her complaint first to a gay rights advocacy organization but was turned down; she found Kaplan through a friend-of-a-friend, an activist colleague of Lavine’s who knew about Kaplan’s work on the New York state case.
It was bashert; Windsor became a part of the family — a third grandmother to Jacob — and Kaplan won her case before the Supreme Court in 2013, persuading enough justices to declare DOMA unconstitutional.
After DOMA, Kaplan remained at her law firm, and when Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination for president, Kaplan supported her candidacy and planned to possibly work in her administration. When that didn’t work out, she came up with another plan.
She decided to open her own law firm, one that would combine corporate and public interest work. And when in August of 2017, white supremacists like Mike Peinovich and Richard Spencer successfully organized the “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville that turned the colonial college town into a battleground, she was perfectly positioned to take them on. She’s leading the case against the march organizers — Sines vs. Kessler — on behalf of Elizabeth Sines and several other plaintiffs. Kaplan also helped to start a non-profit, called Integrity First for America, to advocate for civil rights during the Trump administration by supporting efforts like the Charlottesville case.
Last summer saw Kaplan and her colleagues in Charlottesville to argue the case’s first major proceeding in front of the judge. They won, and Lavine was there to see it. She sometimes travels to watch Kaplan in action, when her own works permits it.
“I take genocide seriously,” she said. “I’m Jewish and Armenian.”
Contact Helen Chernikoff at email@example.com
Even Roberta Kaplan Needed Help Coming Out
Helen Chernikoff is the Forward’s News Editor. She came to the Forward from The Jewish Week, where she served as the first web director and created both a blog dedicated to disability issues and a food and wine website. Before that, she covered the housing, lodging and logistics industries for Reuters, where she could sit at her desk and watch her stories move the stock market. Helen has a Master’s of Public Administration from Columbia University and a BA in History and French from Amherst College. She is also a rabbinical school dropout. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @thesimplechild.