Gay Hero Edith Windsor left this world today. She was 88-years-old.
Four decades after the Stonewall Riots ignited the fire that started the modern fight for LGBTQ Rights in the USA, Edith Windsor, became the lead plaintiff in the second most important U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the national battle for Marriage Equality.
The 2013 Windsor decision was limited to 13 states and Washington DC. But in 2015, SCOTUS held that same-sex couples had a constitutional right to marry anywhere in the nation, with all the protections and privileges of straight couples. Its historic significance was equal to Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which decriminalized gay sex in the USA.
But, Windsor had just wanted a tax refund. Yet, for other couples struggling for Marriage Equality, it was more than tax advantages, but also Social Security, health care and veterans’ benefits; protection in immigration and bankruptcy cases; and keeping a home after a spouse had died, as well as food stamps, green cards and federal aid to the poor, the elderly and children. Plus, most importanly the right to be with the one you love, and have that love recognized by your country.
Windsor had been the victim of President William Jefferson Clinton’s DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act of 1996), which barred same-sex married couples from federal recognition as spouses, excluding them from the 1138 federal benefits available to married straights.
After living together for 40 years, Windsor and Thea Spyer, a psychologist, were legally married in Canada in 2007. Spyer died in 2009, and Windsor inherited her estate. The IRS denied her the unlimited spousal exemption from federal estate taxes available to married heterosexuals, and she had to pay taxes of $363,053.
She sued, claiming that the law unconstitutionally singled out same-sex marriage partners for differential treatment.
With United States v. Windsor, SCOTUS overturned DOMA in a 5-4 ruling, citing the Fifth Amendment guarantee that no person shall be “deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law”.
The decision did not say if there was a constitutional right to same-sex unions, and it left in place laws in 37 states that banned such marriages.
After the SCOTUS decision, President Barack Obama called an elated Windsor with his congratulations. She became a national celebrity, a Gay Rights Hero, the grand marshal of NYC’s Pride March and a runner-up to Pope Francis for Time Magazine’s 2013 Person Of The Year.
She was born in 1929 as Edith Schlain to Jewish immigrants who struggled during the Great Depression.
In high school, she dated boys but recalled having crushes on girls. In 1946, she enrolled at Temple University. She became engaged to her brother’s friend Saul Windsor, but broke it off when she fell in love with a female classmate. But, being gay was too tough a life and she married him after receiving her degree in 1950. The marriage lasted a year.
She moved to NYC, took secretarial jobs, and earned a Master’s Degree in Mathematics from NYU. She learned computer programming and worked for the Atomic Energy Commission at N.Y.U. She was hired by I.B.M. as a computer programmer in 1958.
Windsor kept her gayness a secret from her employer and work colleagues, and she was terrified of being found out when she went to gay bars. She met Spyer in 1963 at a Greenwich Village spot, that had a Lesbian Night on Fridays. Spyer was a psychologist and an accomplished violinist.
In 1965, they began dating, and in 1967, Spyer proposed marriage, and they began a 40-year engagement. They couldn’t exchange rings, that might have given them away.
They shared an apartment on lower Fifth Avenue where they entertained gay friends. Returning from a trip to Italy in 1969, they found out about the Stonewall Riots which had happened the night before.
Windsor and Spyer marched in Gay Pride parades, joined LGBTQ organizations and lived openly as lesbians. In 1975, Windsor took early retirement from IBM and began a second career as an LGBTQ Rights activist.
In 1977, Spyer was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). As her body slowly deteriorated with paralysis, Windsor became her round-the-clock caretaker.
In 1993, NYC began a Domestic Partnership registry to extend housing, health insurance and other benefits to LGBTQ and unmarried straight couples. The Windsor-Spyer were among the first to sign up.
As Spyer became more frail, with time running out, they got married in Toronto in a ceremony conducted by Canada’s first openly gay judge. It was later recognized as a valid marriage by New York State.
Spyer passed away in February 2009. Marriage Equality came to New York State in 2011, too late for Windsor and Spyer. Yet, Windsor’s SCOTUS victory in 2013 brought a barrage of lawsuits against same-sex marriage bans that remained. And on June 26, 2015, the SCOTUS brought a constitutional guarantee for Marriage Equality to the entire nation with Obergefell v. Hodges.
A year ago, Windsor married bank executive Judith Kasen. She is Windsor’s sole survivor.
“I think the truth is if you really care about the quality of somebody’s life as much as you care about the quality of your own, you have it made.”