Passing the Torch
Edith (Edie) Windsor and LGBTQ activism were born in the 1920s. Both remained closeted for decades, but in the 1960s, a seismic event in New York City inspired Ms. Windsor and countless others to say “Enough.”
Edie Windsor was born shortly before the stock market crash of 1929 and five years after the first U.S. Gay Rights Association. Edie met Thea Spyer at a dance in Greenwich Village in 1963. They danced the night away, and danced often in the years after. By 1967, when marriage – and even a relationship between two women – was illegal in the United States, Thea got down on one knee and proposed to Edie. Rather than risking exposure with an engagement ring, Thea gave Edie a circular diamond pin.
In 1969, the couple returned from a holiday on June 28th to their usually boisterous neighborhood. Edie went out for groceries and saw the aftermath of the Stonewall Riots. “There were a lot of cops . . . a very strange kind of feeling,” she observed. The night before, police had raided the Stonewall Inn to harass the gay men inside. Police often conducted raids there, citing the patrons for “offensive” behaviors and beating them during arrests. This time, the gay people fought back.
Before that day, Edie lied to others constantly to hide who she was. She feared being associated with the gay community. That event altered her. “From that day on, I had this incredible gratitude . . . . They changed my life forever.”
Afterwards, Edie and Thea lived openly as lesbians, and together as an engaged couple for over 40 years. Edie cared for Thea after she contracted multiple sclerosis, leaving her a quadriplegic. They married in 2007 in Canada, because marriage had recently been legalized there. In 2009, Thea died in their home, with Edie by her side.
“Marriage is a magic word. And it is magic throughout the world.
It has to do with our dignity as human beings, to be who we are openly.”
- Edith Windsor
When processing Thea’s estate, Edie learned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prevented her from being recognized as a legal spouse. She had to pay $363,053 in taxes, which a heterosexual wife would never have been required to pay. Facing this fundamental injustice, Edie chose to fight back and stand up for herself.
After a 4-year court battle, the Supreme Court ruled in her favor. In 2013, her case, U.S. v. Windsor, became one of three seminal rulings that changed the lives of LGBTQ people in the United States:
- Lawrence v. Texas (2003) – Texas law criminalizing "homosexual conduct" is unconstitutional.
- U.S. v. Windsor (2013) – DOMA section 3 is unconstitutional; federal government cannot discriminate against married LGBTQ couples when determining federal benefits/protections.
- Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) – Same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional. Expanded the Windsor decision, creating protection for same-sex marriage under Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, and forcing recognition of marriages performed out-of-state.
“Sometimes there are days like this when that slow, steady effort is
rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.”
- Barack Obama
The recent progress of the LGBTQ community has suffered numerous setbacks since January. Responsibility now falls to a new generation to continue the persistent fight to allow everyone in the U.S. the same rights and opportunities. On September 12, 2017, Edie Windsor passed away in Manhattan. It is time to pick up her torch and carry it forward.
Holly Hanover wrote this for the Lawyers Club LGBTQ Task Force and runs a Federal Criminal Defense practice at The Law Offices of Holly S. Hanover, representing indigent clients for more than 22 years.