Edith Windsor on Love, DOMA and Life as a Civil Rights Icon

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Edith Windsor with John Hockenberry
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At the age of 84, Edith Windsor shot to stardom in 2013.

As the plaintiff in U.S. v. Windsor, the case in which the Supreme Court declared the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional, Edie, as she is known, became a national icon in 2013. As she tells The Takeaway's John Hockenberry, "It's like there is a huge love affair between me and the whole gay community, and I can't walk down the street without people stopping me to say thank you. It's thrilling."

In 2007, Windsor married Thea Spyer, her partner of more than 40 years, in OntarioCanada. When Spyer died of complications from multiple sclerosis in 2009, the federal government and the State of New York served Windsor with a bill for hundreds of thousands of dollars in estate taxes because the U.S. (and, at the time, New York) did not recognize same-sex marriages. With the help of attorney Roberta Kaplan, Windsor sued the U.S. government, claiming that DOMA violates the Constitution's equal protection clause. 

On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court agreed, in a 5-4 decision. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, "The avowed purpose and practical effect of the law here in question are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States."

Windsor describes her "panic" upon hearing "Edith Windsor versus the United States of America" at the Supreme Court, but she tells John Hockenberry that she found the Justices "very fair and very respectful."

Windsor says that she often finds old notes from Thea around her apartment, and on the day she returned form oral arguments at the Supreme Court, she found a note from Thea that said, "'You did it honey, congratulations.'" 

By the time Thea died, "she hadn't been able to write for years," Windsor says, "so I assume it was probably from something like when I stopped smoking. But I was spooked."

Over the decades, Windsor and Spyer were devoted to one another, but, because of the stigma against LGBT relationships, their love remained hidden. "I think we were so pleased with each other so we had to be pleased with ourselves," Windsor says. "It made for not feeling hidden even though we were."

Windsor remained closeted throughout her career as an engineer at IBM. "Most people did not realize I was gay until our wedding appeared in The New York Times [in 2007]," Windsor recalls. "Then people called up and said, 'You lied! Edie, you lied!' I said, 'We had to.'"

As Windsor explains, marriage changed her relationship with Spyer. "It [the domestic partnership] was a symbol of who were to each other, no question...but it wasn't the same as the morning after we got married and woke up. There's a profundity that probably goes with the word altogether, but I think it's much more so for those of us who thought we could never have it."

In the years to come, Windsor plans to continue her activism in the LGBT community. "This business of this love affair with the gay community makes me a very happy girl," she says. "If you have to survive a great love of your life, it's a wonderful way to do it. It really is."