What to Know About Iconic Gay Rights Activist Edith Windsor

The trailblazing activist has died at age 88

Edith Windsor
Edith Windsor on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., after the court heard arguments in her case against on the constitutionality the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman. Pete Marovich/ZUMAPRESS.com/Alamy Live News

Edith Windsor was “tiny” but indomitable. In 2013, her efforts to claim a tax refund led to a landmark Supreme Court decision granting federal benefits to same-sex couples. Now, Robert D. McFadden of the New York Times reports, the activist has died at the age of 88. Windsor’s wife, Judith Kasen-Windsor, confirmed her death, but did not name a cause.

“I lost my beloved spouse Edie, and the world lost a tiny but tough as nails fighter for freedom, justice and equality,” Kasen-Windsor, who married Edith in 2016, said in a statement, according to Colin Dwyer of NPR. “Edie was the light of my life. She will always be the light for the LGBTQ community which she loved so much and which loved her right back."

The path to Windsor’s life's work began with a love story. In 1963, while working as a computer programmer for I.B.M. in New York City, Windsor met clinical psychologist Thea Spyer at a restaurant in Greenwich Village. “They danced all night,” McFadden writes, and in 1967, Spyer proposed marriage—with a diamond brooch instead of a ring, so as not to raise questions about their sexuality. (“Internalized homophobia is a bitch!” Windsor said of those years, during a 2013 interview with the New Yorker’s Ariel Levy.)

Their engagement lasted for 40 years, during which time Windsor and Spyer became more open about their relationship. After the 1969 Stonewall Riots, they started marching in pride parades and joined LGBTQ organizations. Windsor took an early retirement at I.B.M. in 1975 and began a career as a gay rights activist. She and Spyer wanted to get married, but it would be decades before same-sex marriage became legal in their home state.

In 1977, Spyer was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. By 2007, her prognosis was looking grim. Because same-sex marriage was still illegal in New York, Windsor and Spyer decided to travel to Toronto, Canada, and get married there.

“Married is a magic word,” Windsor said during a New York rally on February 5, 2009, according to McFadden. “And it is magic throughout the world. It has to do with our dignity as human beings, to be who we are openly.”

Days after the rally, Spyer died. Windsor was asked to pay $363,000 in federal estate taxes, which she would not have been required to do “[i]f Thea was Theo,” as Windsor put it during a 2013 interview with NPR’s Nina Totenberg.

The problem for Windsor, and for many other same-sex partners, lay in the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The law denied same-sex couples federal recognition as spouses and in turn prevented them from claiming hundreds of federal benefits, including one that granted an unlimited exemption from federal estate tax.

Windsor sued, claiming that DOMA “unconstitutionally singled out same-sex marriage partners for ‘differential treatment,” according to Katey Rich and Hilary Weaver of Vanity Fair. And in 2013, the Supreme Court agreed, overturning DOMA in a landmark victory for LGBT rights.

The ruling did not affirm a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, which at the time was illegal in 37 states. But it was an important step towards the seismic 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex unions across the United States.

The case also turned Windsor into an LGBTQ icon. President Barack Obama called to congratulate her on the ruling. In 2013, she was the runner-up for TIME magazine’s “Person of the Year” designation. She also served as the grand marshal of New York City’s Pride March.

“I don’t know how to say it that’s not corny as hell—I’ve been having a love affair with the gay community,” Windsor told the New Yorker’s Levy in 2013. “I got a million letters. I think Thea would love it.”

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