Joshua Lyon is the out gay coauthor of late queer icon Edie Windsor’s inspiring book, “A Wild and Precious Life.” This memoir-biography hybrid is an intimate look at the life and times of Windsor, a Philadelphia native whose Supreme Court case helped establish the right for same-sex marriage. Windsor recounts working at IBM, her 44-year relationship with her partner Thea Spyer and LGBT activism. Additional passages at the end of each chapter feature anecdotes and observations from Windsor’s friends and relatives.
In a recent interview, the author spoke with PGN about Windsor and this new memoir.
PGN: Can you talk about how you worked with Windsor to create the memoir?
JL: We worked together for about six months, and two-thirds of it was done before she passed. Originally, it was going to be a memoir. When she passed away, it was awful for many reasons. I lost a new friend, and I was paralyzed about the book — would they rush it out? I really didn’t want to do that. The publisher gave us all the time we needed. After Edie passed, I went into deep research mode, and I processed my grief by walking around Philadelphia. I tried to see the world through her eyes. I was lucky she kept every piece of paper from 1951 onward.
PGN: What can you say about the various stages of Windsor’s remarkable life?
JL: One of the things that struck me was the message of how good parenting can go a long way. Her mother was a fantastic figure who filled her with self-confidence. Another thing was seeing how the gay rights movement progressed as she was growing. She watched it with one eye but wasn’t able to emotionally enter that until after Stonewall, and that was when Thea was getting ill. Her activism would have kicked in earlier if she wasn’t taking care of Thea.
PGN: What observations do you have about Windsor being a queer woman during an era when it wasn’t easy?
JL: It was incredibly difficult for her, but one thing we talked about was that she knew she had it better off than other closeted women. She was white, beautiful and educated, and she had privilege. She gave back. Even though things were difficult for her, there were people who had it much worse. She could help people in need before she was able to come out.
PGN: What did you find particularly exciting or unusual about the gay history she recounted?
JL: One of the things I was excited about when we started talking was learning about the women’s bars of the period. They were very different than men’s bars, and that was cool to learn about and dive into. I got that info from first-hand accounts from these amazing octogenarian lesbians. There are few or no photographs to describe what these places were like. And I read a lot of lesbian pulp fiction, which was written about these spaces.
PGN: The contributions from Windsor’s friends and relatives help create an impression of her and her life, fleshing out details. Who or what impressed — or surprised — you the most?
JL: I had this list from Edie, before she passed, of people to talk to, and I got so many stories. A lot of them did not end up in the book. I had to create a moral code to make the book a memoir/biography. When I heard a story, I had to think about whether Edie would want it in the book. I also talked with Judith, Edie’s surviving spouse, and Karen, her best friend. We made group decisions about what to put in the book. One of my favorite things was something she didn’t tell me, but many others did: that she was a card counter and used that to her advantage in casinos to win big. Her many trips to Las Vegas made total sense after that.
PGN: Windsor’s motto is, “Don’t postpone joy.” What valuable lesson(s) did Windsor teach you in the writing of “A Wild and Precious Life”?
JL: She taught me that I need to wake the fuck up, basically. I’m a Gen X-er, so there’s a part of me that goes to pride rallies, but I never threw myself into activism. There is so much more that I can do, should do and that must be done. That was a huge inspiration for me. I feel like the work she did is something that we should continue. It’s bizarre to think it is such recent history.
Joshua Lyon will participate in a Q&A with state Representative Brian Sims in the Philadelphia Room at the William Way Community Center, 1315 Spruce Street, on October 29 at 6:00 p.m.