Nel's New Day

September 14, 2017

Edie Windsor: An Icon for the Ages

A great woman died this week. Thanks to Edie Windsor, my partner and I, along with hundreds of thousands of other same-gender couples, are able to have the same benefits of legal marriage that heterosexual couples have always had. Edie is even more special to me because I had the opportunity to talk with her on a cruise to Alaska before she became internationally famous. Every time I saw her on television or spotted her in a photograph, I remembered her energy, warmth, and kindness.

As Richard Socarides wrote, Edie is the Rosa Parks of the LGBT movement of the 21st century. Her legal claim to have the same rights as any other married couple personified courage as she openly declared her long-time relationship with another woman. United States v. Windsor wasn’t even specifically about marriage; it was about the rights that marriage confirms in state and federal law regarding taxes. Yet the Supreme Court case ruling that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), barring federal recognition of legally valid same-gender marriages, was unconstitutional ended in the landmark decision granting marriage equality to all same-gender couples.

Married in her early twenties, Edie divorced her husband, Saul Windsor, in less than a year after she told him that she wanted to be with a woman. In 2013, Windsor told NPR:

“I told him the truth. I said, ‘Honey, you deserve a lot more. You deserve somebody who thinks you’re the best because you are. And I need something else.’”

She took a job with IBM in 1958 after she earned a master’s in applied mathematics from New York University and became a computer programmer ad executive. Like almost all LGBT people at that time, she stayed in the closet. Earlier this year, she told Metro Weekly:

“I worked for IBM for 16 years. I lied for 16 years to people I loved. We ate lunch together, we had drinks together, we spent weekends together. Today, you don’t have to do that at IBM. You don’t do that anywhere, almost. It’s unlikely that LGBT people in the United States would have to do such a thing again.”

Edie met her love, clinical psychologist Thea Spyer (left), at the Portofino restaurant in New York’s Greenwich Village. A few years later, Thea gave Edie a diamond brooch instead of a ring for their engagement to keep their relationship secret. They loved to dance, and Edie kept dancing with Thea even after multiple sclerosis put Thea in a wheelchair (to right of Edie, above). Their remarkable relationship, which included Edie as Thea’s caregiver, is beautifully documented in the film, Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement. The title refers to the 44-year “engagement” before they could legally marry in 2007 after an arduous trip to Canada when Thea was a quadriplegic. Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir used almost five decades of slides for this poignant yet joyful view of this love story. [More views of Edie at her website.]

After Thea’s death two years later, Edie’s inheritance was taxed at $363,053 because DOMA prevented same-gender couples from the advantages of marital tax deductions for all heterosexual couples. She argued that existing law subjects people in same-sex marriages “to differential treatment compared to other similarly situated couples without justification in violation of the right of equal protection secured by the Fifth Amendment.” The taxes resulted from the decades-long appreciation on real estate that they had long owned. Edie found the taxes an affront to her marriage to Thea, and she sued to regain them.

WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 27: Edith Windsor, 83, acknowledges her supporters as she leaves the Supreme Court March 27, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case ‘Edith Schlain Windsor, in Her Capacity as Executor of the Estate of Thea Clara Spyer, Petitioner v. United States,’ which challenges the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the second case about same-sex marriage this week. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Finding a lawyer was difficult because of her age and fragile health—and the fact that her sexual orientation made her appear to some lawyers as less than a compelling plaintiff. Roberta Kaplan, partner with the firm Paul, Weiss, was joined by the ACLU, and Edie’s case went before the Supreme Court on March 27, 2013 when Edie was 83. Her openness and victory were signals to all of us in the LGBT community that we might also be out to the public. Edie stayed an LGBT rights activist after the court ruling, and met her second wife, Judith Kasen (right), at a benefit. They were married a year ago.

Even a Supreme Court case two years after Edie’s victory ruling for marriage equality has not  created equal rights for LGBTQ people across the nation. The judiciary continued to struggle with questions about marital rights, adoption, and other family law in states that kept opposing same-gender marriage. The future for these rights is dimming: Dictator Donald Trump (DDT), the officials in his administration, and many other Republican leaders are virulently anti-LGBT. The Supreme Court will argue a case next month about whether businesses need to serve LGBT people, specifically if a baker has the right to not bake cakes for LGBT couples. DDT’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is supporting the baker and also arguing that the Civil Rights Act does not protect LGBT people from employment discrimination. Kaplan is fighting DOJ in these cases from her new firm, Kaplan & Company. DDT has attempted to ban transgender service members in the military.

I would like to think that my marriage is like squeezing all the toothpaste out of the tube: it’s impossible to put it back in. And I would like to think that I can’t be refused service in a restaurant because a so-called “law” allows people to deny service to anyone they personally reject. Nowhere in history have rights been taken away from people once granted. People can skirt school desegregation, mandated by Brown v. Board of Education, but the ruling is still the law of the land. In a fit of pique, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in his dissent to United States v. Windsor:

“By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition. Henceforth those challengers will lead with this Court’s declaration that there is ‘no legitimate purpose’ served by such a law, and will claim that the traditional definition [of marriage] has ‘the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure’ the ‘personhood and dignity’ of same-sex couples.”

A public memorial will be held Friday, September. 15 at 12:30 pm at Riverside Memorial Chapel in New York City. In lieu of flowers, Windsor had requested that any donations in her memory be made to the NYC LGBT Center, Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, the Hetrick-Martin Institute, and Services & Advocacy for LGBT Elders, or SAGE.

President Obama made this touching statement after Edie’s death:

“America’s long journey towards equality has been guided by countless small acts of persistence, and fueled by the stubborn willingness of quiet heroes to speak out for what’s right. Few were as small in stature as Edie Windsor – and few made as big a difference to America.

“I had the privilege to speak with Edie a few days ago, and to tell her one more time what a difference she made to this country we love. She was engaged to her partner, Thea, for forty years. After a wedding in Canada, they were married for less than two. But federal law didn’t recognize a marriage like theirs as valid – which meant that they were denied certain federal rights and benefits that other married couples enjoyed. And when Thea passed away, Edie spoke up – not for special treatment, but for equal treatment – so that other legally married same-sex couples could enjoy the same federal rights and benefits as anyone else.

“In my second inaugural address, I said that if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. And because people like Edie stood up, my administration stopped defending the so-called Defense of Marriage Act in the courts. The day that the Supreme Court issued its 2013 ruling in United States v. Windsor was a great day for Edie, and a great day for America – a victory for human decency, equality, freedom, and justice. And I called Edie that day to congratulate her.

“Two years later, to the day, we took another step forward on our journey as the Supreme Court recognized a Constitutional guarantee of marriage equality. It was a victory for families, and for the principle that all of us should be treated equally, regardless of who we are or who we love.

“I thought about Edie that day. I thought about all the millions of quiet heroes across the decades whose countless small acts of courage slowly made an entire country realize that love is love – and who, in the process, made us all more free. They deserve our gratitude. And so does Edie.

“Michelle and I offer our condolences to her wife, Judith, and to all who loved and looked up to Edie Windsor.”

Thank you, President Obama. And thank you, Edie. And thank you, all the people who fight for equal rights.

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