“You did it, honey.”
That’s what Edith Windsor, the octogenarian widow who struck down DOMA with Windsor v. the United States, says she thinks her late wife, Thea Spyer, would be saying to her today. Windsor’s win, and the Supreme Court’s dismissal of Proposition 8, has widened access to marriage equality more than any other pair of events in American history.
It’s about a million degrees in the tiny room of the LGBT Center where Windsor and her legal team are addressing reporters, and it is stifling even for young people. Yet Windsor—wearing her signature broach, which she and her late wife wore for decades as a symbol of their commitment to each other in lieu of wedding rings—seems spry and energetic.
“Ms. Windsor,” I ask her, “you can probably answer this better than anyone in America right now. What is love?”
There is just the sound of cameras clicking as Windsor pauses and looks a bit choked up.
“Love is a million things,” she finally says, noting you could be talking “about adult love, or love of kids. What was love with me and Thea? It started with tremendous respect for each other, and two mantras. Mine was ‘Don’t postpone joy,’ and Thea’s was, ‘Keep it hot!’”
The room full of reporters breaks into laughter. “Of course, love is much more than that,” she says. She could be alluding to the decades she spent with her love while her government wouldn’t recognize them legally. She could be talking about the fact that it took a team of six people to disassemble and reassemble the wheelchair of Spyer—who was riddled with multiple sclerosis—when they traveled to Canada to get legally married shortly before Spyer died.
“It’s like the word marriage,” Windsor continues. “It’s magical. It’s hard, I hadn’t thought about it. There’s a hunk of a poem by Auden: ‘For now I have the answer from the face / That never will go back into a book / But asks for all my life, and is the Place / Where all I touch is moved to an embrace, / And there is no such things as a vain look.’”
This demure, five-foot-tall, 100-pound octogenarian widow who can talk in great minutiae about constitutional law also recites W.H. Auden from memory when asked about the nature of love at a press conference. Anyone who has underestimated her—like House Speaker John Boehner, who decided he’d temporarily give up his revulsion to taxes to try to keep $360,000 of Windsor’s—did so at their own peril.
Windsor has a flair for poetic expression herself. When talking about her road from being a closet case to a lesbian “shero”—whose name is now brought up along with those of Rosa Parks and Harvey Milk—she chooses colorful, but economical, language.
“Internalized homophobia is a bitch,” she says.
* * *
Hours before the press conference, Cathy Marino-Thomas, the board president of Marriage Equality USA, could not stop crying when the Defense of Marriage Act was ruled unconstitutional.
I have reported on this woman, who has dedicated herself to marriage equality since her daughter was born (Jaqueline is now finishing the seventh grade), over many years and through many highs and lows.
I have watched Cathy screaming about marriage when few gay organizations thought any attempt to get equality was possible, let alone probable. I have watched her spit and curse in rage when confronted with foes, and display enormous patience in changing skeptical minds.
I have watched her posture slump with sadness when key legislative fights were lost in the New York and New Jersey legislatures.
And I’ve never seen her cry like this, or seem so happy.
We’re in Henrietta Hudson’s, a lesbian bar in Greenwich Village open conspicuously early for a Wednesday morning. Cathy and her wife, Sheila Marino Thomas, have been awaiting the Supreme Court decisions with the bar’s owner, Lisa Cannistraci.
Before the ruling came down, Sheila and Cathy could barely remember to breathe. Now that it’s out, they can barely catch their breath between sobs of relief and joy. When the TV announcer reads that DOMA “violates equal protection,” Cathy yells, “We won!” and the tears start flowing.
Cathy and Sheila hug with a CBS camera watching them. Then Cathy sweeps Cannistraci literally off her feet in a bear hug.
Then, when the TV camera is turned away, Cathy and Sheila kiss deeply and passionately as if they are new lovers about to hook up for the first time (rather than the parents of a teenager and a couple of 20 years, now legally recognized as married in the eyes of the federal government).
Cathy calls her mother. “Mom!” she yells with glee. “This means you don’t have to take care of Sheila anymore! She can take care of herself!”
Cathy explains when she hangs up: “My mother was crying. She had to protect Sheila for years. When I was giving birth to our daughter,” Cathy says, her wife, Sheila, had no legal hospital visitation rights.
Unlike so many straight politicians who only do so when caught in a sex scandal, Cathy will take a break “to spend time with my family.”
“My mother was my next of kin. She had access,” Cathy continues. If Cathy had any medical problems and her wife was denied the ability to make medical decisions, Cathy’s mom would intervene.
“I told my mother, ‘Mama, you lost your job!’” Cathy says through her tears. “And she said, ‘That’s OK. You still have yours. You and Sheila can take care of each other.’”
Cathy and Sheila rock each other and cry in each other’s arms. Then Cathy’s trademark humor returns and she declares, “God, am I going to be drunk this weekend!”
A caller on CSPAN says that he’s upset at the ruling because “marriage is just between a man and a woman.”
“Who gives a shit what this guy thinks?” Cathy says, breaking into peels of laughter. “And you know why we can laugh? Because it’s not true!”
Indeed, and after all these years it’s hard to believe, even for a journalist or an activist: legal marriage is no longer just between a man and a woman in the United States of America. One of the greatest legislative failures of Bill Clinton’s presidency—the bill that codified discrimination against a minority group—is in the past now.
The partying continues when we leave the bar. Cathy is congratulated by well-wishers on the street, first by a straight parent of a child who goes to her daughter’s school. When we arrive at the Stonewall Inn, where the gay-rights movement began over four decades ago, she is greeted like a rock star.
Many people who know Cathy assume marriage equality has been her full-time job. It is not: she has a full-time job.
But she’s getting ready to retire from one of these gigs.
“I got what I wanted: full legal equality for my family,” she tells me, beaming. “My last act as board president of Marriage Equality USA will be on Sunday, marching in the pride parade.”
Then, unlike so many straight politicians who only do so when caught in a sex scandal, Cathy will take a break “to spend time with my family.”
* * *
Today was not just a day for marriage activists: it was a day for lawyers. (And lawyers dealing with same-sex relationship law will be getting a lot of work in the coming months and years.)
In theory, same-sex couples, according to the ACLU, now have the right to wed in 13 states and the District of Columbia. Still, there are endless fights to be waged on these couples’ behalves (not to mention the couples in states without marriage equality). Windsor got slapped with a tax bill when her wife died, and she will get her money back (“with interest,” notes her attorney Roberta Kaplan). But how hard will it be for other same-sex married couples to retroactively seek justice for taxes they should not have had to pay? Or to get access to federal benefits if they were wed in a state that had marriage equality but move to one that does not?
How hard will it be for same-sex spouses to sponsor a foreign partner?
“I think that all married couples [gay and straight] will be entitled to same the treatment under immigration laws,” Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union told me.
I am skeptical, as I have a vested interest, having dated a foreigner for many years. Isn’t it possible bi-national couples will have to sue the government to make federal immigration officials comply promptly with this ruling?
No one should have to sue, Lieberman says, “and if we have to, we will.”
For the NYCLU, the ACLU, Windsor, and the Proposition 8 plaintiffs, today’s historic rulings are huge victories. But they did not go as far as some had hoped: they did not grant marriage equality in all 50 states. While the Supreme Court found Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional and struck down Proposition 8 on the issue of standing (a legal technicality, really), it did not have before it, nor did it address, the fundamental question of whether same-sex couples have the right to marry in the United States.
The National Organization for Marriage will no doubt pounce on these areas of doubt and try to postpone the inevitable: full marriage equality throughout the country. When the New York Senate voted to legalize same-sex marriage in 2011, I watched NOM’s Brian Brown put his head into his hands and cry his head off.
His tears were of a very different variety from those of Cathy or Sheila Marino-Thomas. And, while NOM tries vainly to ramp up its efforts while Cathy plans to ramp down her group’s, Brown is probably going to shed a lot more tears of the unhappy variety.
Right now, one of the few positive things on NOM’s website—amidst the angry phrases about “illegitimate rulings” and “betrayal of marriage”—is the claim that 1,238,522 people “stand with us.”
Unfortunately for NOM, five of the nine people who mattered today did not.
Steven W. Thrasher was named Journalist of the Year 2012 by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. His writing on same-sex marriage has appeared in The New York Times, Village Voice, Out, The Advocate, Gawker, and Newsweek/The Daily Beast. firstname.lastname@example.org.