Edie Windsor Claims Her Victory –– and Ours

Edie Windsor shares a happy moment with her lead attorney, Roberta Kaplan, at a Sheridan Square rally early in the evening of June 26. | DONNA ACETO

Edie Windsor shares a happy moment with her lead attorney, Roberta Kaplan, at a Sheridan Square rally early in the evening of June 26. | DONNA ACETO

Internalized homophobia is a bitch,” Edie Windsor told a jam-packed news conference at Manhattan’s LGBT Community Center just two hours after the US Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Windsor was saying that for a long time during her 44-year relationship with her late spouse Thea Spyer, “I lied all the time” to a close knit group of coworkers at IBM.

Internalized homophobia seemed an odd topic to be broached by a woman whom others at the same press conference called a hero and “shero” and compared to Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, and Harvey Milk. She had also just gotten off the phone with President Barack Obama, who called her from Air Force One when the Supreme Court ruling came down.

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It was Windsor’s federal lawsuit that led the high court to strike down DOMA, enacted in 1996 in response to early signs that state courts in Hawaii were receptive to marriage equality claims. New Yorkers Windsor and Spyer married in Toronto in 2007, and even though marriage equality was not the law in this state when Spyer died in 2009, a New York appellate court in 2008 ruled that valid same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions must be recognized here. After Spyer’s death, Windsor faced an inheritance tax of more than $360,000 that she would have avoided if she had the marital deduction enjoyed by opposite-sex couples.

Spyer lived with a multiple sclerosis diagnosis for decades before her death, and Windsor’s pro bono attorney in the DOMA case, Roberta Kaplan, a partner at Paul, Weiss, noted that when the couple traveled to Canada for their wedding, “four best women and two best men” were needed to help assemble and disassemble Spyer’s wheelchair at airports in New York and Toronto.

“That’s how much they wanted to get married,” Kaplan said.

The couple traveled to Toronto as part of an effort dubbed the Civil Marriage Trail. The group was founded by New York activists Brendan Fay and Jesús Lebron after the Canadian courts ruled in 2003 that same-sex couples there had the right to marry. Civil Marriage Trail facilitated the planning for US couples wishing to travel to Canada to tie the knot.

Kaplan opened the press conference by saying the 5-4 opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy found that the federal government was discriminating against same-sex couples “solely because they are gay. That’s what DOMA always was, –– a statute whose sole purpose was to denigrate gay and lesbian people.”

The 1996 law, she said, imposed numerous hardships on couples legally married in their home states –– “the unfair burden of the inheritance tax, the loss of Social Security benefits, the lack of leave from their jobs for a spouse’s illness, and the lack of proper notification when a soldier falls in the line of duty.”

Kaplan’s co-counsel on the case, James Esseks, who heads up the LGBT & AIDS Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, described Windsor’s victory as a “watershed moment” –– the fall of “the last federal law that requires discrimination against gay and lesbian people.” US law had previously outlawed the hiring of homosexuals, their hiring by businesses with government contracts, the entry of gay and lesbian people into the US, and military service by openly gay soldiers. The DOMA case, he said, was a “capstone to decades” of efforts.

“We dumped DOMA,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which worked with its affiliate, the ACLU, and Kaplan. “It was certifiably a failed marriage law.”

Windsor, who received rock star treatment from many admirers who flocked to the Center for the press event, was exultant over the ruling, saying, “We won everything we asked for and hoped for.” Acknowledging that many people have asked her, “Why are you suing the United States of America over a tax bill,” she next said, “Thea and I loved each other for more than 40 years.”

When a reporter asked her what love is, Windsor at first said there are many types of loves, then alluded to the excitement of her sexual relationship with Spyer, admitting that her late wife always insisted they “keep it hot.” Barely missing a beat, Windsor then quoted at some length a W.H. Auden poem about romantic love.

Insisting that the two-and-a-half years of DOMA litigation she endured were “joyous, just joyous,” Windsor said, “If I had to survive Thea, what a glorious way to do it. And she would be so pleased.”