Community mourns Edie Windsor, pioneer behind marriage equality

Community mourns Edie Windsor, pioneer behind marriage equality

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"If you're going to quote anything, quote this: There is no such thing as same-sex marriage. There is marriage in this country."

Edie Windsor was emphatic about that point when PGN sat down with her last year in Washington, D.C., before she accepted another in a sea of national awards. Windsor rose to prominence in 2010, when she filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Defense of Marriage Act, the ban on marriage equality. Her suit was ultimately successful, and she is largely credited as one of the driving forces behind national marriage equality.

The Philadelphia native died Tuesday at age 88.

Windsor was born Edith Schlain on June 20, 1929, to Russian-Jewish immigrants. Her family weathered the Great Depression, losing their apartment and candy shop; she said she also faced anti-Semitism during her time in Philly schools. Despite the challenges, Windsor was committed to her studies and earned an undergraduate degree in 1950 from Temple University.

She was married to a man, Saul Windsor, for a short time but ended after she acknowledged her lesbian identity.

Shortly after graduation, Windsor moved to New York City and obtained a master's degree in mathematics from New York University.

Windsor went on to work for IBM for about 20 years, and was also active in New York's LGBT movement. She was a co-founder of social-justice improv group Old Queers Acting Up, a board member of Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders and volunteered at a number of LGBT agencies.

Windsor met Thea Spyer in the early 1960s, and the couple got engaged in 1967, decades before marriage equality; they were careful not to wear engagement rings so as to not to face retribution from their employers. Spyer, a clinical psychologist, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1977, and Windsor eventually became her full-time caretaker as her health declined in later years.

In 2007, 40 years after the proposal, Windsor and Spyer married in Canada; the state of New York recognized their marriage the next year. Their relationship was the subject of a 2009 documentary, "Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement."

Spyer died Feb. 5, 2009.

She left her estate to her wife, but Windsor was ordered to pay more than $360,000 in estate taxes, as Section 3 of DOMA barred same-sex couples from the estate-tax exemption that was then available only to heterosexual married couples.

Windsor's suit wended its way through the court system, and prompted a milestone when the Obama administration announced in 2011 the Department of Justice would no longer defend DOMA's Section 3. After a series of affirmative court decisions, an intervening legal group appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued its landmark decision striking down the clause on June 26, 2013.

The ruling led to the extension of federal benefits to same-sex married couples, and prompted a landslide of court decisions allowing state recognition of same-sex marriage. From those rulings, the question of the inherent constitutional right to marriage equality made its way back to SCOTUS, which ruled two years to the day after the Windsor decision that same-sex couples have a right to marry.

According to the Williams Institute, at least 317,000 same-sex couples have married since the Windsor decision. Windsor herself married Judith Kasen last year.

The impact of Windsor's case on LGBT history was hailed by scores of community and political leaders this week.

“Edie was a fearless pioneer for progress," said DNC Chair Tom Perez. "When our laws betrayed the promise of equality enshrined in our Constitution, she stood up. When our lawmakers were too slow to act, she spoke out. And when a generation of LGBTQ Americans hoped for a path forward, she took the fight for marriage equality to our highest court."

Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the agency was proud to stand with Windsor during her legal fight.

"The wheels of progress turn forward because of people like Edie who are willing to stand up in the face of injustice," Romero said. "One simply cannot write the history of the gay-rights movement without reserving immense credit and gratitude for Edie Windsor."

Attorney Roberta Kaplan said representing Windsor in her case was the "greatest honor of my life.

"She will go down in the history books as a true American hero," Kaplan said.

GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders Civil Rights Project Director Mary Bonauto noted that Windsor's willingness to share her story changed American hearts and minds.

"By generously and fearlessly sharing the story of her 40-plus-year love for Thea Spyer, she helped the nation and the Supreme Court see the humanity in the relationships of same-sex couples," Bonauto said.

Philadelphia attorney Angela Giampolo said Windsor was a natural storyteller.

Giampolo, also a Temple alum, was asked to interview Windsor for an April 2014 event at Temple's Liacouras Center. A few weeks before the event, Giampolo traveled to New York to meet Windsor and prep for the interview. The meeting that was supposed to last an hour ended up spanning more than nine hours.

"She had a constant willingness to share her stories," Giampolo said. "The reason it last nine hours was because she had nine hours of stories to tell. And I just listened."

Windsor had a room in her apartment filled with photos and memories of her time with Spyer, as well as her marriage-equality case.

"She walked through the whole room and picked up everything and shared every story, every trip they went on, that time when doves flew over them in Venice," Giampolo recalled. "It was just story after story.”

Giampolo said she was in “awe” of Windsor, but the latter was very humble.

“She just wanted to share of herself, and she didn't at all see herself the way the rest of us saw her."

More than 1,000 people turned out to hear those stories during the 2014 Temple event, at which then-Mayor Michael Nutter proclaimed the occasion "Edie Windsor Day."

Giampolo kept in touch with Windsor over the years. In 2015, Windsor returned to Philadelphia to participate in the 50th anniversary of the Annual Reminders, early LGBT-rights demonstrations held at Independence Hall.

In last year's interview with PGN, Windsor said she was impressed by Philadelphia's LGBT scene every time she returned to her hometown.

"The gay atmosphere in Philadelphia is incredible," she said. "It was, for me, joyous. Everybody everywhere was gay and it was absolutely thrilling."

During that visit, Giampolo and several others, including National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director Kate Kendell, visited Windsor in her hotel room.

"We ended up staying until 4 in the morning," Giampolo said. "She was in her moo moo, and we were like, 'Do you want us to get going?' and she was like, 'No!' She just had so much humor and energy and life to her at all times."

Giampolo said getting marriage advice about her relationship with now-fiancée Kristina Furia was a moment she'll never forget.

"Having the opportunity to speak to the woman who is responsible for our ability to get married, about how you know when you're ready to get married ... I just have goosebumps," Giampolo said. "Her biggest advice to anyone thinking about getting married was don’t move in together until you've experienced two seasons: two falls, two Christmases. By that time, you've likely experienced trauma and pain and that's when you start to know each other's characters in hard times. She said she and Thea had hardships but love is a cycle. It repeats itself and, for them, it repeated itself over the course of 44 years."

In her interview with PGN last year, Windsor also dispensed advice about the importance of seeing the lighter side of life.

Even in her advanced age, she said, "I continue to dance." 

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