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Meet The 83-Year-Old Taking On The U.S. Over Same-Sex Marriage

Edith Windsor in her New York City apartment in December 2012. Next week, the U.S. Supreme Court hears her challenge to the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.
Richard Drew

The tiny dynamo asking the U.S. Supreme Court to turn the world upside down looks nothing like a fearless pioneer. At age 83, Edith Windsor dresses in classic, tailored clothes, usually with a long string of pearls, and she sports a well-coiffed, shoulder-length flip. She looks, for all the world, like a proper New York City lady.

Proper she may be, and a lady, but Windsor, who likes to be called Edie, is making history, challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA. The law bans federal recognition and benefits for legally married same-sex couples.

The crux of her lawsuit is that after living with Thea Spyer for more than four decades, and having a marriage recognized as legal in the state of New York, Windsor had to pay $363,000 in estate taxes when Spyer died because the federal government did not recognize their marriage as valid.

"If Thea was Theo," she says, "I would not have had to pay" those taxes. "It's heartbreaking," she adds. "It's just a terrible injustice, and I don't expect that from my country. I think it's a mistake that has to get corrected."

' I Need Something Else'

Windsor was born in 1929, shortly before her parents lost their home and business in the Depression. As a teenager she was, by her own account, very popular with boys, and after graduating from Temple University, Windsor got married.

But as she puts it, when she went to the movies, she secretly identified with movie star Dick Powell, not with his co-star Ruby Keeler. After less than a year, she asked her husband for a divorce.

"I told him the truth," she recalls. "I said, 'Honey, you deserve a lot more. You deserve somebody who thinks you're the best because you are. And I need something else.' "

After moving to New York City, Windsor worked as a secretary, got a master's in mathematics from New York University, and soon was on her way to a career as a top programmer at IBM.

All the while, she hid her homosexuality.

In those days, it was "impossible" to be openly gay, she says. "I really was a middle-class girl ... and of course you didn't want to be queer."

Finally, though, she asked an old friend for help: "If you know where the lesbians are, please take me." Her friend took her to a Greenwich Village restaurant called Portofino, where Windsor met Thea Spyer, a prominent psychologist, who would be the love of Windsor's life and, eventually, her wife.

' Will You Marry Me?'

In 1967, on a drive to the countryside, Thea asked Edie what she would do if she got an engagement ring. After all, if co-workers saw it, they would want to meet "the guy."

When they got to the house they were renting for the weekend, Thea got out of the car and got down on her knees and said, "Edie Windsor, will you marry me?" Instead of a ring, she presented Edie with a circle pin adorned with diamonds.

At the time, of course, there was no place the two could actually marry. But they led good lives together, even after Thea was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The disease at first progressed slowly.

Thea's first symptom was not being able to complete her golf swing. "It was very gradual," Edie says, but eventually "it turned into a fairly vicious, progressive MS." Edie never thought of Thea as being "sick," but her partner was becoming increasingly crippled.

Marriage ... symbolizes commitment and love like nothing else in the world. And it's known all over the world. I mean, wherever you go, if you're married, that means something to people and it meant a difference in feeling the next day."

Edie eventually took early retirement to help care for Thea, and they waited and hoped for the day New York would legalize same-sex marriage. They thought of going to Canada, where same-sex marriage was legal and recognized by the state of New York, but Edie says that with all the lifts and gear that Thea needed to travel, "my feeling was I don't have to drag her though that."

Then suddenly, it was clear that the end was near.

"She got a lousy prognosis, which said within a year, and she got up the next morning and she said, 'Do you still want to get married?' "

Edie said yes. Thea said, "Me too." And they did, flying off to Toronto with "two best men and four best women."

The photos show nothing but joy.

' This Magic Thing'

"The fact is, marriage is this magic thing," Edie says. "I mean forget all the financial stuff — marriage ... symbolizes commitment and love like nothing else in the world. And it's known all over the world. I mean, wherever you go, if you're married, that means something to people, and it meant a difference in feeling the next day."

That difference "was profound," she adds. "And I've asked everybody since who gets married after long-term relationships, 'Did it feel different the next day?' and the answer is always 'Yes, absolutely.' "

Thea Spyer died 21 months after the couple's marriage. Edie had a heart attack a month later, but she recovered, to fight the injustice she sees in the federal law that does not recognize her marriage.

She has a life-size photo of Thea in their apartment. She says she sometimes leans up against it and talks to Thea about the progress of the case known as Windsor v. United States.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
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