Edith Windsor: SFGN's Person of the Year

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Edith Windsor as she hears the Supreme Court's DOMA decission on 6/26/13. (Ariel Levy/New Yorker)

Time Magazine favorably chose Pope Francis as its Person of the Year.  For the LGBT community, though, from South Florida, to Seattle, it is a no brainer. The Person of the Year is Edith ‘Edie’ Windsor, a profile in courage and conscience.

After NSA expose artist Edward Snowden, she came in third place in Time’s annual selection. Ms. Windsor is the headliner here, in your hometown gay paper.

In 2007, Windsor and Thea Spyer, after 40 years of being together, the New York residents married in Toronto, Ontario.

Two years later, Spyer would pass away, requiring Windsor to turn over to the IRS nearly $365,000 in inheritance taxes, because they were not a legally married couple under the federal laws of our supposedly grand old USA.

If federal law had recognized the validity of her marriage, Windsor would have had to pay no federal estate taxes. She would have qualified for what is known as an unlimited spousal deduction. In May 2008, New York Governor David Paterson had actually ordered state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions, but the IRS, a federal agency, would not. Thus began the odyssey wherein Edie Windsor would challenge the Defense of Marriage Act as an unconstitutional deprivation of her civil liberties.

On June 26, 2013, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States of America agreed, striking down the law as a “as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment.” It was the first time the Supreme Court had ever recognized marriage between partners of the same sex. Not surprisingly, all three women on the Supreme Court voted with Windsor’s position. The fight for marriage equality has been won by the tenacity of an unlikely activist, now appropriately referred to as the matriarch of America’s gay rights movement. By the way, Ms. Windsor is 84 years old. You are never too young or too old to fight your first civil rights battle.

Time Magazine may not have made Ms. Windsor this year’s winner, but it sure published an illuminating and electrifying profile of this enchanting senior citizen. Referring to her as “feisty, funny, and extroverted,” the story shares Windsor’s quiet history with a same-sex partner: “Most of us have spent most of our lives coming out selectively. It’s safe here. It’s good here. You can say you have a wife here, but not there,” she told the magazine. It is a story many of us lived in the past. It is a lie future gay generations will not have to tell. We have the courage and conscience of Edie Windsor to thank, along with a good and gutsy lawyer, one Roberta Kaplan, a lesbian and corporate litigator who had previously argued for the sanctity of same sex marriage in New York’s highest court.

Ms. Windsor’s profile in Time Magazine is heart wrenching, as she describes decades of “living a lie,” foolishly marrying a man, and concealing her relationship with a woman.

You grow up today in the age of Grindr, and maybe you don’t know that until 1973 the American Psychiatric Association deemed homosexuality “a mental illness.” You did not meet in bars. You met partners in dark alleys. But Windsor and Spyer emerged from the shadows, and together they eventually worked for groups like the East End Gay Organization on Long Island, where, according to Time Magazine, they hosted a yearly party over Memorial Day weekend.

Being gay in straight America has been no party, not for Edie Windsor or many of her generation. Today, though, she has helped clear a path, aided by a bare majority of our Supreme Court. The case that she brought to the high court was once about winning an economic victory, which was no small matter alone. But now she has sent a ripple through all of time, for decades to come. We can now be assured that that gay couples will be treated as economic equals across the board, from getting access to veterans and social security benefits, along with green cards for foreign husbands and wives.  

In 1958, when Ms. Windsor worked for IBM, homosexuality was the love that dare not speak its name. By 2008, they had a division for corporate diversity and attended summits of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. Say goodbye to the shadows, but never forget the ignominious shade and false shame we were forced to endure.

Windsor has lived the admonition of Pericles, who said of Greece, “If Athens shall appear great to you, consider then that her glories were purchased by good men doing their duty each and every day.” Ms. Windsor is not our first hero. Our community has honored many, from gay soldiers like Leonard Matlovich, to politicians like Harvey Milk, who has posthumously won the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

You never know when you are called upon to stand naked before the cannon; to speak up and speak out to defend your freedom, or your rights. You just have to rise to the occasion when your time comes, whether it is against a high school bully or homophobic employer. You don’t need a gun to stand your ground. You need a conscience, and maybe a good lawyer. You may be 20; you could be 80. You just need to be you.

This year, 2013, the South Florida Gay News celebrates the conscience, the courage and the commitment of an octogenarian lesbian with the tenacity and tenor to make a difference, Edie Windsor. Her fight won more than equal rights for her and her late partner. It made you and marriage equality very real in the eyes of the law and our society, now and forevermore.


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