Edith “Edie” Windsor, the lesbian widow who vanquished the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, has died at the age of 88. She packed more into her last decade of life than many people do in a lifetime.
In 2010, she fought back when she got a $363,000 tax bill after her wife died – a bill she wouldn’t have received had she been married to a man. She pressed on even after the big gay rights organizations told her it was too soon to demand full marriage equality. I admire these incredible achievements. I also admire her personality: she was a wickedly funny, sharp-tongued interviewee every time I interviewed her over the years.
When she won her first victory in federal district court, Edie vowed to take her case all the way to the supreme court. The Obama administration had decided to no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act, but, in a rare move, House Speaker John Boehner decided to defend it in his stead.
I asked Edie at a press conference what she’d say to Boehner, a Republican who hated almost every tax he ever saw, but who was willing to spend millions in legal fees to hold on to the $363,000 he’d taken from an octogenarian widow.
“I think I’d rather not talk to him,” she said with her characteristic wit, making a room full of reporters explode in laughter.
Later, when I asked her one-on-one how she felt experiencing this history without her late wife, Thea Spyer, she answered: “It hurts a lot. I’m glad that I ever had the courage to sue the government … I’ve lived through some terrible pain. Do I still love her? Yes. My house is full of pictures of her, including a couple full size. What happened is, the combination of the film, and the suit, kind of gave me a reason to live after she died.
“Because I’m an old lady! I am going to be 83 this month. And we had a nice life, and it was enough, and that was kind of my feeling before the film, and then before the suit. My purpose now is this, and I’ve kind of fallen in love with the whole gay community, no question. So I want everybody to profit from this.”
The next time I interviewed Edie was when her case was before the second circuit court of appeals. At that point, she wondered if she was going to live long enough to see her case resolved.
But live she did! In late June of 2013, the supreme court ruled in her favor in Windsor v the United States – returning her $363,000 (with interest) and widely expanding the scope of same-sex marriage equality. Perhaps that was when Edie gave me her greatest answer, when I asked: “Ms Windsor, you can probably answer this better than anyone in America right now. What is love?”
“Love is a million things,” she said, after a long pause on global TV without nothing but the sound of camera shutters clicking. “What was love with me and Thea? It started with tremendous respect for each other, and two mantras. Mine was ‘Don’t postpone joy,’ and Thea’s was, ‘Keep it hot!’”
Again, she reduced a room full of reporters to laughter, adding: “Of course, love is much more than that … It’s like the word marriage – it’s magical. It’s hard.” She then proceeded, from memory, to recite “a hunk of a poem by Auden” that described love to her: “‘For now I have the answer from the face / That never will go back into a book / But asks for all my life, and is the place / Where all I touch is moved to an embrace / And there is no such thing as a vain look.’”
Edie didn’t give up after her victory. She was a fixture at marches and events for homeless LGBT kids, lesbian rights and violence against queer people. She fell in love and married again a year ago. She was a model of what it means to be an engaged citizen. What a life. Thank you, Edie.