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.

September 29, 2012

Edie Windsor Fights for LGBT Rights

Last week I had the opportunity to see Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement and meet one of the subjects of the film, Edith Windsor. Now 83, Edie met her beloved Thea Spyer in 1965. They got engaged in 1967 and lived together in Greenwich Village until Thea’s death in 2009. The film shows them through the best of times and the most difficult. Thea was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1977, and Edie spent much of the next 30 years caring for her as her health deteriorated.

When Thea was told in 2007 that she might have only a year to live, the couple decided to stop waiting for legalized marriage in New York and settling on a Canadian civil ceremony. Filmmakers Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir directed this intimate documentary about two women who stayed in love and maintained their relationship despite legal, societal, and health barriers.

The film touched me even more, perhaps, because my partner and I have been together over 43 years, meeting and beginning our relationship just two years after Edie and Thea did. We experienced discrimination and struggles throughout the same four decades until the more liberal times of the 21st century that still refuses us legalized federal marriage benefits.

Receiving little attention from the world outside the LGBT community, the film might not have gained greater visibility if the U.S. government had not taxed Edie a whopping $363,000 in estate taxes after Thea’s death. The amount of taxes makes the couple sound wealthy; they weren’t. In the 1960s they bought a home in Manhattan and a cottage in the Hamptons, the latter for only $35,000. Inflation increased the value of Edie’s home, drastically increasing the “death tax.” The only reason that she had to pay this federal estate tax is that she and Thea weren’t married in the United States; they couldn’t get married because federal law didn’t allow them to marry. Legally married husbands and wives would not have to pay any of this money.

So Edie sued. In June, a federal district judge in New York decided in Edie’s favor, ruling that section three of DOMA unconstitutionally discriminates against married same-sex couples. Over 18 months ago, President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder had determined that DOMA was unconstitutional and that they would no longer defend this misguided Congressional act in court. Yet Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) begs to differ; under his guidance, a House committee with a Republican majority has used tax-payer money to employed Paul Clement for a minimum of $1.5 million to defend DOMA and prevent marriage equality.

Two days ago the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case. In his opening statements, Clement admitted that he didn’t have a good argument: “There’s no way to preserve the definition of marriage [as one man and one woman] other than by preserving the definition. It becomes somewhat circular.”

Clement tried to support DOMA with 1972’s Baker v. Nelson, in which two men tried to strike down Minnesota’s ban on same-sex marriage. In this case, the Supreme Court let stand a state law that limited marriage to different sexes, and Clement argued that the appeals court should abide by that precedent in upholding DOMA. Baker was a summary decision without written briefs and oral argument and contained no explanation other than that the constitutional claim of Baker and McConnell did not raise a “substantial federal question.”

Clement acknowledged that times may have changed during the past 40 years but added, “The only thing that hasn’t changed is this court’s obligation to follow Supreme Court precedent.” There is precedent for overturning past Supreme Court decisions during that time. For example, during the 40 years since Baker, 1986’s Bowers v. Hardwick ruling that upheld laws against sodomy was overturned in 2003 by Lawrence v. Texas. Also the Roberts court does not have a reputation “to follow Supreme Court precedent.”

In his rebuttal at the end of the oral arguments, Clements said that saving money is a good reason to preserve DOMA and Congress was “preserving the scope of the benefits programs the way they’ve always been.” He also went back to 1885’s Murphy v. Ramsay that required Utah to declare marriage between a man and a woman as a provision of statehood.

In its 1885 ruling, the Supreme Court wrote that “no legislation can be supposed more wholesome and necessary in the founding of a free, self-governing commonwealth … than that which seeks to establish it on the basis of the idea of the family [is] consisting in and springing from the union for life of one man and one woman in the holy estate of matrimony.” That definition of marriage is “the sure foundation of all that is stable and noble in our civilization; the best guaranty of that reverent morality which is the source of all beneficent progress in social and political improvement.”

Murphy relied on the Dred Scott case, that decided in 1857 that slaves are not citizens of the United States, to reference the “traditional understanding” of marriage.

To summarize Clement’s arguments to preserve DOMA:

  • Supreme Court rulings should not be overturned, no matter how times change;
  • The definition of marriage comes from rulings that prevented polygamy and ensured slavery;
  • All matrimony is “holy” and not civil;
  • Saving money is a good reason to deny rights to LGBT people.

Louisiana’s governor Bobby Jindal has an even stronger reason for opposing marriage equality. He thinks that legalizing same-sex marriage will overturn the Second Amendment: “The reality is today we’re talking about redefining marriage. If the court is allowed to impose and write their own laws and their own views, and overturn those that are done by our duly-elected representatives, what’s to stop today’s [indistinguishable]. Tomorrow it may be property rights, maybe it’s Second Amendment rights. We have got to take a stand against judicial activism.”

While the government can’t prove that it will lose money if marriage equality is legalized, LGBT people can prove that they lose money without it. After a gay, lesbian or bisexual senior dies, the surviving partner is denied Social Security survivor benefits, taxed heavily on any retirement plans inherited from their partners that legal husbands or wives don’t pay, and charged estate tax on inheriting a home even if it is jointly owned.

Surviving partners will probably be forced out of their homes if their names are not on the title, a situation that would not occur if they were legally married. The same thing happens if partners enter nursing homes: federal Medicaid law permits a married spouse to remain in the couple’s home when a husband or wife enters a nursing home but does not grant unmarried couples the same right. These are only a few of the 1000+ federal laws that discriminate against the LGBT community.

Despite a serious heart condition and her grief after the loss of Thea, Edie exudes a positive attitude, displaying an amazing joy for life and enthusiasm for people. Meeting her will continue to be one of the highlights of my life. Thank you for fighting for our rights, Edie!

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