The LGBT community lost one of its pioneers this week, whose life and legacy left a lot of lessons for future generations.
Edie Windsor, whose case was the death knell for the federal ban on marriage equality, died Tuesday. After being hit with an exorbitant estate-tax bill following the death of her wife, whom she married in Toronto, Windsor filed suit, taking her claim all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
At 84 years old, Windsor celebrated the downfall of the Defense of Marriage Act on the steps of the SCOTUS building, one of the most anticipated moments in American LGBT history. Because of the landmark decision, the path to full marriage equality was illuminated, and secured two years later, to the day.
The success of the marriage-equality movement demonstrates just how much our community’s victories are contingent upon individual contributions. With each person who stands up and challenges an injustice, and shares his or her story of doing so, a building block is laid. Windsor, perhaps an unlikely heroine — an elderly, wealthy, pant-suited lesbian — likely caused many Americans to question their preconceived notions of what it means to be LGBT. Because of that momentary halt, they were able to hear what she had to say: that she and wife Thea Spyer spent more than four decades together, living just as other married couples do — through good times and bad — just without the federal recognition. That basic connection and relevance, a tie to something people know and understand in their own lives, may have made all the difference in swaying public opinion to the community’s cause. Who could hear the 44-year love story of Edie and Thea and say theirs wasn’t a “real” marriage, or that they shouldn’t be entitled to the same rights, benefits and protections afforded to millions of other Americans?
Windsor certainly wasn’t the first LGBT trailblazer and she definitely won’t be the last. In the decades before her case, countless community members faced down government oppression, police violence, family rejection and scores of other institutionalized ills, all to lay the groundwork for people like Windsor, who then took up the mantle.
Windsor’s courage and commitment helped thrust LGBT issues into the national spotlight — opening the floodgates for conversations on other LGBT issues that the community, and society in general, are now tackling. The figures who are leading those charges are now continuing to building the path forward for our community.
That path has never been, and likely won’t ever be, an easy one. But as Windsor and so many who came before her showed, victories are within reach.