Edith Windsor, The Unlikely Activist

In her ninth decade, she started a judicial odyssey, fighting a battle she never expected to wage—let alone win. Now she's the matriarch of the gay-rights movement

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What Edie knew, and has since made clear, is that marriage equality has effects that go far beyond the practical. Part of the significance of the case for Windsor has been newfound freedom to be out completely. She started hearing from people she had assumed would never accept her because she was gay and learned that they didn’t care. (Her deceased ex-husband’s wife, after reading about her case, called to talk about how fondly he had spoken of her.)

Marriage equality, like Stonewall and the AIDS crisis, is the next step for members of the gay population to get to know one another. “There is this growth of a sense of community that is glorious,” Windsor says. “Try, if all your life you knew you couldn’t have it and now suddenly you can, or suddenly it looks like you are going to be able to because people are fighting for it and working at it. So every­body is up and everybody is out more and more.” Bringing more people out of the closet accomplishes the things she hoped would happen with marriage: a breakdown of internalized homophobia, an antidote to a feeling among some gay teenagers that being gay is the “end of their whole life.” It has also accelerated the movement, she says. “It balloons—the more of us there are, the more of us there are, the more of us there are. And it’s joyous. It’s very joyous.”

Supreme Court Hears Arguments On California's Prop 8 And Defense Of Marriage Act

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Windsor outside the Supreme Court when it heard oral arguments in March 2013.
See more important moments in the fight for gay rights in this interactive timeline.

Right now Windsor is the matriarch of the gay movement. She has accelerated a positive shift that was already taking place. The Supreme Court decision in her case smoothed the way for New Jersey’s high court to legalize gay marriage there in October. The same thing may happen soon in New Mexico. When Windsor’s lawsuit was filed in 2010, gay marriage was legal in five states. Now it is legal in 16. Windsor’s role has its ­challenges—speaking several times a week and living as a public figure for the first time in her life is tiring. (Although if her new convertible and plans to appear on a Caribbean cruise with Maya Angelou in February are any indication, she won’t let that stop her.)

Mostly, Windsor is having fun, enjoying meeting all the people in the past few months who stop her in the street to tell her they are getting married or to ask her advice about love. “My life is much richer,” she says. In a letter a couple of months before the Supreme Court decision, Terrence McNally, the gay playwright and a friend, wrote, “Thank you for letting us crown you our queen (we never ­really asked; we just sort of thrust a crown and scepter on you) and being so gracious about it. It can’t always be easy or comfortable to be EDIE WINDSOR!!! But I hope Edie Windsor understands how important the other Edie, Queen Edie, is to our community at this moment in our incredible story.” 

Correction: The original version of this story misidentified the members of Thea Spyer’s family who did not approve of her relationship with Edith Windsor. Spyer’s relatives in Holland were supportive of the relationship.

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8 comments
beach.lisa.r
beach.lisa.r

Thank you for a truly beautiful window into your lives. In an era when there was little or no acceptance makes me appreciate how lucky I am to share my life with the woman I love in these easier times.

I will share your story with friends gay and straight - to enrich their understanding that we are just ordinary people with the same capacity to love and be loved.

Thank you - you are a winner to me.

BenjaminRose
BenjaminRose

I think she should have won. Pope Francis may be exceptional for a Pope, but I think that this is more relevant at the moment.

stolenchild27
stolenchild27

Great story. Personally, I feel it's a pity Edie 'lost' to someone who hasn't gotten any farther than 'Who am I to judge?' (I like the gesture, Pope Francis, but Edie seems to better understand that 'no judgement' entails acknowledging everybody as equal and treating them as such.)

MEVAR
MEVAR

Truly an inspiring story!  Love should know no boundaries; people should be able to marry whomever they want.  I cannot understand how people can think that the wonderful relationship between Edie and Thea would take anything away from heterosexual marriages like mine.  The important things in any relationship are love, trust, and respect.  The sex of your partner should be only anecdotal.

MissH
MissH

What extraordinary women.  Their love and devotion changed the world.  Thank you Edie and Thea!

LOrion
LOrion

Wonderful piece! … Sharing via fb, google+ and twitter,  and keeping!

ValerieGrunsted
ValerieGrunsted

What a wonderful love story and happy ending! Edie and Thea paved the way for so many of us, and I am eternally grateful!

firefly212
firefly212

She put a face to the issue... and made it more practical than just ideological. People were screaming about how their religion didn't like gay marriage, but when she forced them to consider whether or not taxing little old ladies out of their homes in the name of some misguided morality really made any sense.

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