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When the Stonewall Inn uprising electrified the gay rights movement in America, Edith Windsor had already been engaged to her partner, Thea Spyer, for two years. More than 40 years later, the spry and elegant former computer programmer became one of the most memorable faces of that movement, as she battled through the court system for the right to marry her longtime love in the city she’d called home since the 1950s.
Windsor, who died today at the age of 88, never got that chance. Spyer died in 2009 after fighting a 30-year battle with multiple sclerosis, two years after the couple married in Toronto, where same-sex marriage was legal. It was Speyer’s death that set the next phase of Windsor’s life in motion: She inherited her wife’s estate, but because her marriage wasn’t legally recognized, she had to pay $363,053 in taxes to the federal government and $275,528 more to New York State simply to retain ownership of the homes in Greenwich Village and Southampton she’d occupied for the past four decades. And that’s when the 80-year-old widow, who had thrived despite facing a lifetime of prejudice, decided to sue the United States government.
Her lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, spoke about her client and her decision to take on the Windsor case in a commencement speech at Columbia Law School in 2014: “My view was that the best way to defeat DOMA was not to focus on lawyers or pundits, but instead to tell the story of how DOMA harmed two people: Edie Windsor and her late spouse, Thea Spyer. How did we do that? We told their story as the great love story that it was. Our goal, however, was not to write some sort of ‘Harlequin romance.’ Rather, what we hoped to do was to show that Edie and Thea, who spent 44 years together in sickness and in health till death did them part, lived their lives with the same decency and dignity as anyone else. Edie and Thea had the kind of marriage that any single one of us—straight or gay—would be so lucky to have.”
And so Edie Windsor fought on, to a 2013 victory in the Supreme Court that overturned the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act defining marriage as between a man and a woman. She celebrated the 2015 ruling that made gay marriage legal in all 50 states. She even found love again, marrying fellow activist and banking executive Judith Kasen-Windsor, who survives her, in 2016.
It’s hard to overstate how important Edie Windsor was as a symbol to the activist and LGBTQ+ communities, after decades of dedicated work. Through the early years of the gay rights movement, when simply living openly with her partner was an act of courage; through the AIDS epidemic, when she sought community and solidarity with the gay men living and dying in her home of Greenwich Village; and into the ’90s, when she became the first to register for a domestic partnership in New York City just a few short years before DOMA was passed, her steadfast commitment to her partner, her ideals, and her vision for her community inspired thousands to keep up the good fight. Tonight, they’ll join together at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village to say goodbye. Rest in power, Edie Windsor.
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