The Godmother of Gay Marriage: Edie Windsor's Passionate Life
After her partner Thea Spyer died, Edie Windsor was left with a massive estate tax bill, just because they were gay. Her victorious fight has redrawn the LGBT equality map.
Taking on the United States Supreme Court is no easy feat, yet 85-year-old Edith Windsor, who goes by Edie, did just that. She made history in 2010 after challenging the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which banned the federal recognition of same-sex marriages and the benefits they were entitled to.
When the statute was overturned in 2013, it was an unprecedented ruling that sent joyous shockwaves throughout the gay community and the rest of the United States. Since DOMA’s abolition, 37 states now recognize and protect same-sex marriage.
I met Windsor for the first time at her apartment just off Manhattan’s Washington Square Park—the same apartment she once shared with her wife, Thea Spyer, who’s passing in 2009 forced Windsor to ignite her lawsuit against the federal government. Windsor was left with a $363,053 estate tax because their marriage was not valid in the eyes of the federal government, even though it was legal in the state of New York.
Wherever she goes, she’s usually recognized. “I get stopped on the street all the time,” Windsor told me over coffee on a frosty winter morning, “and a lot of people just wanting to say, ‘Thank you.’”
In addition to receiving an honorary doctorate from John Hopkins University, she was No. 3 on Time magazine’s 2014 “Person of the Year” list, behind the Pope (#1) and Edward Snowden (#2). The same year, OUT magazine honored her with a lifetime achievement award and the New York LGBT Center dedicated their inaugural Community Trailblazer Award to her and her late wife.
But two years later, Windsor’s schedule is still non-stop. Speeches, interviews, and award ceremonies fill most of her day-to-day life, reaching the point where she has to block out an entire week to get personal chores out of the way and make time to open her mail, which usually involves gifts and letters sent from newlyweds and newly out people showing their thanks and appreciation. She receives some 20 a week.
She’s a sophisticated woman—warm and friendly, but with a bit of sass. Dressed in sharp, tailored clothing and a mega-watt smile, she’s confident when she proclaims that “50% of the population” is gay, and feisty while asserting that she doesn’t “have any sympathy for bisexuals,” because she thinks its “phony.”
“Honey, you’ve got to be loud and proud,” she shouts as we sit down to talk—not just because she’s having difficulty hearing these days, but because that’s been the motto cry for our community since the gay rights movement arose with fury after the 1969 Stonewall riots and the AIDS epidemic.
Windsor’s sense of justice, she tells me, comes from being the youngest of three siblings. Her brother and sister were four years and 11 years her senior, respectively. “I was the baby, so I got blamed for a lot of stuff,” she said. “So it served me very well when all of this happened.”
The three grew up in a middle-class family. Her parents owned a candy shop and ice cream parlor, which the family lived above. But when Windsor was 2 years old, she and her brother were stricken with polio and the store was shut down and quarantined. The last big epidemic had hit her hometown of Philadelphia and sent her mother “scurrying around the world looking for serums.” She succeeded and both had a full recovery.
However, the medical bills put financial stress on the family and forced her father to borrow money from a family member who owned a department store. In turn, her father became an employee for most of his life, working to pay it back. “I remember it was like a family tragedy. We all talked about it and offered to help pay it back.”
By the time Windsor went to college it was World War II. Her family had moved to an upper-middle class neighborhood and Windsor began attending a local community college, then Temple University. It was there she had her first serious love affair with a woman. She was at a college party and the hostess walked up to her and asked if she had “homosexual relations.”
“I pulled myself together and said, ‘On occasion.’ Then, she introduced me to some people for my occasions and I fell deeply in love.” It forced Edie to temporarily break off her engagement with the man she eventually married—a man she described as “a glorious guy. Any straight woman would have fallen in love with him. He was big and handsome and smart and knew a lot about jazz.”
She says, “It was impossible then. The only people that you knew were gay were some of the ex-Waves—you know, women who had been in the Army who were very butch,” she said. “In the context of the homophobia that was so prevalent in the 1950s,” she wrote in an affidavit for the District Court for the Southern District of New York, “I certainly didn’t want to be a ‘queer.’ Instead, I wanted a ‘normal’ life.”
It wasn’t until she divorced her husband and moved to New York in the early 1950s that Windsor could fully explore her sexuality. She “traveled with six gay guys for the first two years” because she “didn’t know where the lesbians were.”
Then, in 1963, she met Thea Spyer, a psychologist and violinist, and sparked a romance that changed both her life and, now, the lives of gay couples throughout the United States. For years, they kept their relationship mostly secret. Edie was not out to co-workers at her high-ranking position at IBM. She had only revealed her love to very close friends after Spyer proposed with a diamond brooch in 1967.
Then, a revolution happened. A police raid at the downtown gay bar, Stonewall Inn, resulted in a string of violent riots by its patrons and became one of the most important moments in the gay liberation movement.
“Sixty years ago I said I don’t see why I had to be identified with those queens,” Windsor said, referencing the many drag queens that hung out on Christopher Street and Stonewall who, at that time, many gays and lesbians hated being associated with. “And then those queens overturned a police car” during the riot “and changed my life.”
It was then that the community began coming together for the first time ever.
“Until then, and, in fact, until the AIDS crisis, there were two different worlds. There were gay men and there were lesbians. But what happened with the AIDS crisis, there was no recognition from the population and they called it the gay disease, the gay cancer, but the women came pouring in to help. So we all really saw each other for the first time.”
After more than 40 years together, Windsor and Spyer wed in Canada in 2007. Spyer had been given a terminal diagnosis after years dealing with progressive multiple sclerosis. They knew their time was limited and gay marriage was yet to be legalized in New York.
Now, her involvement advocating for and with the LGBT community has changed Windsor’s life.
“This community has meant the world to me,” she said. “It filled my life after Thea died and I can’t tell you the extent to which it changed how I could be and where I would be in life. And it’s what gave me the guts to do the court case.”
After Spyer passed away in 2009, Windsor suffered her own heart attack. It was a prognosis doctors “characterized as broken heart syndrome,” Windsor described.
Soon after, she was faced with a $363,053 estate-tax bill on the property she inherited from her late wife. It was a tax that heterosexual spouses were already exempt from. Yet, Windsor, whose marriage legally was recognized by the state of New York, was forced to pay. DOMA prevented the federal government from recognizing her marriage.
So, in 2010, she sued with the help of Roberta Kaplan, a "brilliant litigation partner with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison" who has been named one of the "Top 100 Most Influential Lawyers" in the United States and also happens to be a lesbian. The suit argued that DOMA violated constitutional rights to equal protection. In 2012, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in her favor.
The LGBT Center in New York City became her base as the suit moved to the Supreme Court. Every day for three weeks, a crew assembled a rally station in anticipation of her case reaching SCOTUS so Windsor wouldn’t have to travel back and forth to Washington, D.C. If the court didn’t take it that day, the staff would break everything down and start over the next day.
Windsor’s involvement with the center dates back to its founding days. She had a large hand in setting up the organization’s first computerized database after it opened its doors, and organized the first women’s dance and served on the board of SAGE (Service & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders), which was founded at the center.
When a decision was finally reached on June 26, 2013, Windsor was there to hold her press conference. The decision meant gay couples across the country were allowed to file joint tax returns, access Social Security benefits, become exempt from inheritance tax, and allow foreign spouses to receive green cards.
“At first I read all of the briefs, but after the first negative brief from the opposition I didn’t read them anymore,” Windsor said, seeming to distance herself from any negative reactions or opinions of her case.
She’s taken that approach her entire life. “At some point I looked online and there were mean comments,” she said. “But I just didn’t know those kinds of people” in my social life. And she didn’t want them there.
Now, almost two years after she succeeded, Windsor, who believes her celebrity status is “joyous because it’s for the right reasons,” knows that the fight for gay rights is far but finished.
“Now that we have marriage, a lot of people ask why we can’t just be like everybody else. Why do we still have to be talking about a gay center or a gay this or gay that?” Windsor says. “I think we have a lot to do. A lot. There are a million things to still be done to make it equal,” which is why she has turned her focus to educating herself on trans identity and at-risk youth.
“First of all, I have a lot of feeling for trans people. They are making gorgeous progress, but it’s very painful progress. They are the most picked on in every way, but luckily they have a couple important celebrities,” like Laverne Cox.
Another issue Windsor has taken close to heart is the hundreds of thousands of youth that have been forced to live a life on the street for coming out to their families.
“We also have somewhere between 40 and 50% of kids living on the street who are gay. This is a whole chunk of us who also took the courage to come out but were thrown out of their homes and forced to live in the street. And until the government takes over, we have to be responsible for that.”
While she makes sure to advocate for these issues at almost every speech she gives and promises that “they can count on anything they want” from her, Windsor has attempted a quieter life for herself. This year, she is attempting to only have one obligation a month, though she’s already broken that rule a handful of times. But, she knows it’s worth it.
“Children born today will grow up in a world without DOMA,” Windsor told a room full of reporters after learning of the Supreme Court decision. “And those same children who happen to be gay will be free to love and get married—as Thea and I did—but with the same federal benefits, protections, and dignity as everyone else. If I had to survive Thea, what a glorious way to do it, and she would be so pleased.”