Edie Windsor, Lesbian Activist, Dies

She led the fight for Marriage Equality.


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Edie Windsor was the lesbian grandmother we all wanted. She was charming, she was funny, she was bawdy, she was as full of life as any teenager and she was devoted to making the lives of lesbians—and other GBT people—better. Edie Windsor knew what it was to be on the receiving end of discrimination, she knew what it was to have to be silent and hidden and living a double life. Edie Windsor knew what it was to be second-class and she didn’t want that for anyone.

 

Edie Windsor changed my life.

Edie Windsor changed America.

On September 12, Edie Windsor died. She was 88. She is survived by her wife, Judith Kasen-Windsor and millions of LGBT Americans. As I write this, there is a candlelight vigil for Edie Windsor in front of the historic Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Her attorney, Roberta "Robbie" Kaplan, who fought for Windsor all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, spoke to the crowd about her client and friend.

 

 

Kaplan said representing Windsor "was and will always be the greatest honor of my life. She will go down in the history books as a true American hero. With Edie's passing, I lost not only a treasured client, but a member of my family. I know that Edie's memory will always be a blessing to Rachel, myself, and Jacob. I also know that her memory will be a blessing not only to every LGBT person on this planet, but to all who believe in the concept of b'tzelem elohim, or equal dignity for all," Kaplan said.

 

Kaplan had been a tireless advocate for Windsor and when I interviewed her for Curve in 2013 after she took Windsor’s case, the case that would come to be known as Windsor v. United States of America, she was in awe of Edie Windsor and the case that had taken her before the United States Supreme Court. Kaplan wrote a book about the case with Windsor, "Then Comes Marriage: How Two Women Fought for and Won Equal Dignity for All."

 

Revellers at the Whitehouse post-DOMA; Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

 

There was much to be in awe of. Windsor was a firebrand. She always had been.

The battle that took Windsor to the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) at 83 was not her first nor her last. And Windsor’s case, which invalidated section 3 of DOMA and allowed federal benefits for married lesbian and gay couples, ultimately paved the way for Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 and the legalization of same-sex marriage.

 

Windsor was born in Philadelphia June 20, 1929 to a family of Russian Jewish immigrants. She said she experienced anti-Semitism throughout her childhood and that her family struggled during the Great Depression.

 

In 1950, Windsor received her B.A. from Temple University. Windsor pursued a career in mathematics and the still new science of computers. She began work on a master’s degree in mathematics from New York University in 1954. During that time Windsor worked for the math department at NYU, entering data into its UNIVAC. She also had a position as a UNIVAC programmer at Combustion Engineering, Inc., where she worked with physicists.

 

Windsor received a master’s degree in mathematics in 1957 from NYU and within months began working in a range of progressively more complex positions in senior technical and management positions at IBM. She attended Harvard University for several semesters on an IBM fellowship, studying applied mathematics. Throughout her 16 years with IBM, Windsor worked in systems architecture and implementation of operating systems and natural language processors. In May 1968, she achieved the highest level technical position at IBM, Senior Systems Programmer. She received the first IBM PC delivered in New York City. Of that time Windsor said, "I loved every aspect of the computing business."

 

Throughout this period of her science and math career, Windsor was in personal flux. She’d always known she was attracted to women and later said she had crushes on other girls throughout her school years. But after she graduated from Temple University, she married Saul Windsor, her older brother’s best friend and a man she said would have been the love of her life had she been heterosexual.

 

But she wasn’t. Less than a year after their 1951 marriage, Windsor asked for a divorce.

 

She had told the New Yorker in 2013 that throughout her brief marriage to Saul she had felt the pull to other women.

"Anytime I would see two women walking on the street on a Saturday night, I would be so jealous," she said.

 

Thea Spyer, left, and Edith Windsor; Picture courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures 

 

 

That something else would be Thea Spyer, the woman she would spend more than 40 years of her life with and fight all the way to the SCOTUS to defend their marriage rights.

 

Edie Windsor moved to New York City after her divorce from Saul. She was 23 and eager and looking for both a career and a woman to share her life with. Like the women in Ann Bannon’s famed lesbian pulp novels of the 1950s and 1960s, Windsor moved to Greenwich Village to find the lesbian life she knew was there, waiting for her. By day she was programming the UNIVAC for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. By night she was out dancing and looking for the right woman. She found a few others before she found Spyer in 1963.

 

The Portofino restaurant in Greenwich Village was, in the 1950s and 1960s, a place where lesbians and gay men would congregate on the weekends. It was there Windsor met Spyer. As Windsor told the New Yorker in 2013, she’d heard the Portofino was "full of lesbians" and she was "desperate to meet some. Men got my message. In the straight world, I was perceived as this sexy being. But with women?"

 

When Windsor first came out she was in gay bars as many nights as possible. She was dancing with other women, leading that Ann Bannon lesbian life. But it was at Portofino she met Spyer, a beautiful dark-haired graduate student in psychology.

 

At the time the two met, each was seeing someone else. And while they did see each other, off and on for a couple of years at various events, it wasn’t until 1965 that they began to date. In 1967 Spyer asked Windsor to marry her. Windsor said yes, but as marriage was still not legal for same-sex couples anywhere, she was concerned an engagement ring would set off alarms at the job where she had already been interviewed by the FBI for security clearance.

Spyer gave her a circlet pin of diamonds. She never took it off. It was on her jacket when she threw open her arms in front of the SCOTUS on June 26, 2013, when the court found in her favor.

The two women passed a long and relatively uneventful life together. In 1977 Spyer, a psychologist, was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis, a progressive neuromuscular disease. As Spyer’s illness progressed, Windsor took early retirement to care for her.

 

In 1993, Windsor and Spyer were among the first to register as domestic partners in New York when the ruling came in—couple number 80. In 2007, after a five year battle with aortic stenosis, Spyer was told she had less than a year to live. She wanted to marry Windsor. So they went to Toronto and married on May 22, 2007. The announcement of their wedding was published in the New York Times.

 

On February 5, 2009, Spyer died and Windsor’s long fight to be treated as her legal wife began. (Windsor was hospitalized immediately after Spyer’s death with stress cardiomyopathy, also known as broken heart syndrome.)

 

The ACLU described what happened next: "When Thea died, the federal government refused to recognize their marriage and taxed Edie's inheritance from Thea as though they were strangers. Under federal tax law, a spouse who dies can leave her assets, including the family home, to the other spouse without incurring estate taxes.

 

"Ordinarily, whether a couple is married for federal purposes depends on whether they are considered married in their state. New York recognized Edie and Thea's marriage, but because of a federal law called the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, the federal government refuses to treat married same-sex couples, like Edie and Thea, the same way as other married couples.

 

"With representation by the American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP [Roberta Kaplan, working pro bono], Edie is challenging the constitutionality of DOMA and seeking a refund of the estate tax she was unfairly forced to pay. Edie alleges that DOMA violates the Equal Protection principles of the U.S. Constitution because it recognizes existing marriages of heterosexual couples, but not of same-sex couples, despite the fact that New York State treats all marriages the same.

 

Out and proud to the end: Edie Windsor; Photo robert pitts/ landov

 

On October 18, 2012, the Second Circuit issued an opinion striking down the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" in the ACLU and NYCLU's Windsor v. United States case. The court decided that when government discriminates against lesbians and gay men, the discrimination should be presumed to be unconstitutional and the government has to have a very good reason for the discrimination. This is the first federal appeals court to decide that a higher standard of review applies to sexual orientation discrimination.

 

On December 7, 2012, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Edie Windsor's challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Oral arguments took place on March 27, 2013. On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that section three of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional and that the federal government cannot discriminate against married lesbian and gay couples for the purposes of determining federal benefits and protections."

 

In the 5-4 ruling on Windsor’s case, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion. He said DOMA placed "same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage."

 

Kennedy said that the law "demeans" same-sex couples "whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects. Under DOMA, same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways," Kennedy wrote.

 

Former President Barack Obama released a statement about Windsor and said, "Few were as small in stature as Edie Windsor—and few made as big a difference to America."

 

 

Former President Bill Clinton, under whom DOMA was passed, said, "In standing up for herself, Edie also stood up for millions of Americans and their rights. May she rest in peace."

 

Edie Windsor married again on September 26, 2016, to Judith Kasen, who is 35 years her junior. At Windsor’s death, Kasen-Windsor said, "I lost my beloved spouse Edie, and the world lost a tiny but tough as nails fighter for freedom, justice and equality. Edie was the light of my life. She will always be the light for the LGBTQ community which she loved so much and which loved her right back."

 

The ACLU’s Anthony Romero said with Windsor’s passing, "We lost one of this country's great civil rights pioneers. The wheels of progress turn forward because of people like Edie, who are willing to stand up in the face of injustice. One simply cannot write the history of the gay rights movement without reserving immense credit and gratitude for Edie Windsor." Hillary Clinton, former senator from New York, said:

 

 

Edie Windsor spent years fighting for the rights of lesbians and other GBT people. GLAAD spoke for many of us when they said, "Edie Windsor was a hero and her contributions to the fight for equality and acceptance will be remembered forever."

 

Edie Windsor was a lover and a fighter. Her love and her fight changed our lives for ever. May she rest in power.

 

 

 

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