Long Fight for Equality Ends in a Win

Southampton resident at center of DOMA case
Evan Cooper

    When the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act yesterday, Edie Windsor, the plaintiff in the case that grew out of a whopping estate tax she was charged when Thea Spyer, her longtime partner and wife, died, already had plans to appear at a rally in New York City that afternoon, and as a grand marshal in the New York City Pride March on Sunday.

    The news of the Supreme Court decision, in which justices ruled that a 1996 law denying federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples is unconstitutional, undoubtedly threw the 80-something Ms. Windsor, who has become a touchstone for gay rights activists, into an even higher gear.

    While normally Ms. Windsor would be spending a summer day at the house she bought in Southampton’s Tuckahoe area with Ms. Spyer in 1968, she was in her Manhattan residence on Tuesday night, surrounded by a retinue of supporters for whom she has become a hero. Besieged by both supporters and reporters, Ms. Windsor told a friend she was not taking many calls, but issued an invitation to join her at the parade.

    Many marchers, no doubt, will don “I Am With Edie” T-shirts, sporting a silhouetted head surrounded by the perky shape of Ms. Windsor’s signature bob. The shape of that hair has been Photoshopped onto numerous images of celebrities and others who have stood with Ms. Windsor, a diminutive but fierce figure, in her Supreme Court fight.

    Ms. Windsor and Ms. Spyer were married in Toronto in 2007, just 21 months before Ms. Spyer died.

    Their marriage was recognized by New York State, but when Ms. Spyer died in 2009, at a point when the couple had lived together for more than four decades, Ms. Windsor was prevented by the federal Defense of Marriage Act from claiming an exemption from federal taxes that is available to surviving spouses and had to pay $363,053 in estate taxes. If Ms. Windsor had been married to a man, her inheritance would have been tax-free.

     “I was anguished about the money, but it was more about the indignation,” Ms. Windsor was quoted as saying last summer, after her lawyer had petitioned the Supreme Court to hear her case. “The government was not recognizing us, and we deserved recognition.”

    It’s just a terrible injustice and I don’t expect that from my country,” she told reporters. “I think it’s a mistake that has to get corrected.”

    According to reports, Ms. Windsor has a life-size photo of Ms. Spyer in their apartment. She sometimes leans up against it and talks about the progress of the case known as Windsor v. United States.

    Before the case reached the Supreme Court, several federal courts had already concluded that the Defense of Marriage Act violates equal protection by barring same-sex couples who are legally married under state law from receiving the federal benefits available to heterosexual couples.

    In October, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled 2 to 1 in Ms. Windsor’s case that there was no good reason for treating married same-sex couples differently than heterosexual spouses. 

    At that time, telling reporters that she was “thrilled” by the decision, Ms. Windsor said that she found it “so offensive that this woman that I lived with and adored, and had loved me, that they treated her as if she was a stranger in my life.”

    Ms. Spyer, she was quoted as saying in October, is “here with me in spirit and would have been so proud to see how far we’ve come.”

    “I’m this person who believes in the Constitution,” she told a reporter earlier this year while waiting to hear whether or not the Supreme Court would take her case. To pass the time while waiting, she read a selection of essays by E.L. Doctorow about the Constitution. “I believe in the Supreme Court,” she said then. “And I do expect justice.”

    Gay rights activists have fought for years against the act known as DOMA. The Obama administration decided in 2011 not to defend the law and asked for its review, and former President Bill Clinton, who signed it into law in 1996, came out against it in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post in March, advocating its invalidation by the Supreme Court.

    When Ms. Windsor got engaged to Ms. Spyer in 1967, she did not begin wearing an engagement ring, which would inevitably bring questions about the man to whom she was betrothed. Instead, upon arrival at an East End rental one weekend, Ms. Spyer gave her a diamond-encrusted circle pin.

    Standing on the steps of the Supreme Court in March after justices agreed to hear the DOMA case, she wore that pin and commented on how someone who was once afraid to say she was a lesbian had become the plaintiff in a key case for gay rights.

    “Everyone lived in the closet,” Ms. Windsor said of life in New York in the 1960s. “The only place to go was bars, and they were rough.”

    She and Ms. Spyer met in 1965 at Portofino, a restaurant in the West Village. At a friend’s apartment later that night, they danced so long, Ms. Spyer had said that Ms. Windsor “danced a hole through their stockings.” Two years later they reconnected during a Memorial Day weekend in the Hamptons.

    As summer residents here, the two often hosted friends, played in poker games, and attended the Empire State Pride fund-raisers. After Ms. Spyer, who had multiple sclerosis, became disabled, they continued to dance together, with Ms. Windsor sitting on Ms. Spyer’s lap in her wheelchair.

    Their love story has been documented in a video released by the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as in another film, “Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement.”

    “The fact is, marriage is this magic thing,” Ms. Windsor has said. “I mean forget all the financial stuff. Marriage . . . symbolizes commitment and love like nothing else in the world. And it’s known all over the world. I mean, wherever you go, if you’re married, that means something to people, and it meant a difference in feeling the next day.”

    Although the couple was married for only two years of their long relationship, Ms. Windsor told reporters that something profound changed after they were married. “For anybody who doesn’t understand why we want it and why we need it,” she said, “it is magic.”