UPDATE: On Wednesday, March 27th, the Supreme Court will hear the plaintiff, Edie Windsor, in her case to struck down DOMA. When I spoke with Edie in January, 2012, she thought it might be 5 to 6 years before her case got to the Supreme Court. Now, just 14 months later, her case will be heard. Go Edie!
On Wednesday, June 6, 2012, a federal court judge in the Southern District of New York ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional. DOMA is being challenged by 83 year old Edie Windsor who brought suit against the US government when she was made to pay a sizable estate inheritance tax after the death of Thea Spyer, her partner of 44 years. Edie’s case has now won in four federal courts.
Edie and Thea met in Greenwich Village and became engaged in 1967. Because of their professional careers, Edie as a computer systems programmer, and Thea as a clinical psychologist, they did not wear wedding rings. In 2007, the couple flew to Canada to exchange wedding vows. They no longer wanted to wait for justice to catch up with their relationship; Thea had multiple sclerosis, was wheel-chair bound and Edie was taking care of her full time.
When Thea died two years later, Edie was forced to pay over $363,000 in estate inheritance taxes. The next year, Edie requested a refund from the IRS and was denied. For a widowed partner in a heterosexual marriage, the refund would have been standard. Although Edie and Thea were indeed a legally married couple recognized by the State of New York, Section 3 of DOMA defines marriage as a man and a woman. DOMA effectively excludes same sex couples from federal recognition, as well as from IRS tax exemptions.
In February, 2011, President Obama instructed the US Justice System to no longer defend DOMA. So, why the continuing issue? When Obama made that decision, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group took up the challenge to investigate if the Congress would defend DOMA. The vote went strictly along party lines and the Republican House and Senate voted to defend DOMA. (No surprise here.) So, up and up the chain of courts Edie’s case will go until it reaches the Supreme Court. (Quick mini court lesson: 94 regional District Courts feed into 12 District Circuit Courts and end up in the Supreme Court. So DOMA has to go to the District Court before it is heard in the Supreme Court.)
I have a personal connection to this story and this woman. (You can get all the sweet and loving details of their lives and love in a documentary “Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement” — very sweet movie!) Last January, I went to The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force annual conference in Baltimore. The first evening, a lovely petite lady, Edie Windsor, was recognized by the moderator as a special guest. Applause, applause, but I had never heard her name nor did I recognize her face on the Jumbotron. The next night, I went to a networking mixer and, as I walked in the door, out the door bounded this same petite fireball.
Thank goodness, I am curious beyond reason, and an extreme extrovert. “Hey, I saw them announce you from the stage, who are you?” And thus began an hour long conversation filled with love, laughter and tears.
Edie told me her story. We both cried through much of it. “What did you love about Thea?”, I asked. “Oh, when that woman walked in the room, I loved her smell, I loved her walk. I loved everything about her.” It seemed an intimate a moment as Edie drifted off to her memories. It was so sweet and it touched the depth of me. I was listening to a woman who fell in love at first sight and never stopped loving her partner of 44 years. “Did getting married after 42 years make a difference, Edie?”, I wondered. “Oh, Y E S ! It felt like we were finally recognized by friends and family and people around us. It felt wonderful!”
“You know what is overwhelming?”, Edie said as she counted out each word in the air slowly, “to see the actual suit and it says ‘Edith Windsor versus the People of the United States of America.'” To appreciate the bigness of that statement and how charming the scene was, you would have to appreciate Edie; she is a little pixie of a women with spunk and joy beyond her 83 years. I became quite anxious for Edie’s health, “Oh my, Edie, you have to live to see this thing to the end. Do you take good care of yourself?”, I asked. “Oh yes, and people are so good to me. They take good care of me.”
Edie wanted to know what I was doing at The Task Force Conference, so, I told her. I told her I am a straight Evangelical Christian and feel compelled to work for justice in and out of the church. She cried; now we were hugging and both wiping away happy-tears. We talked about the struggles gay youth still endure, and about the conversations I have with them. And Edie, the person suing the People of the United States of America, turned into my number one fan. “Kathy, keep fighting for these kids. Make it safer, make it better. It has to change.”
We parted after a long while.
When I consider the Defense of Marriage Act, I do not see the black and white print in some legal document that limits loving, committed, long term relationships to only a man and a woman. I see the hundreds of my gay, lesbian and transgender friends who are denied the right to be in legally protected marriages. They are denied not only social, familial and religious sanctioning of their unions, the are denied basic protections as citizens of the United States.
Does it matter that all citizens in this country are treated equally and fairly under our Constitution? Sweet Edie says, “Oh, Y E S ! It felt like we were finally recognized by friends and family and people around us. It felt wonderful!” It is mostly the people of “my tribe”, Christians, that stand in the way of equality and protections for my gay and transgender friends. We just need to get better at understanding our laws and the humanity and similarity of “the other”.
Go Edie, honey. I am going to watch you take this to the Supreme Court and, when the decision is announced in your favor, I will cry with you again. Happy-tears.