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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