Edie Windsor, the New York octogenarian whose Supreme Court victory in 2013 forced the federal government to recognize same-sex marriage and led to its legalization two years later, died Tuesday. She was 88.
Windsor's unlikely legal battle toppled a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act, which had denied married gay and lesbian couples the same federal benefits enjoyed by others. At the time, it affected about a dozen states where same-sex marriages were legal.
The ruling led to instant fame. Time magazine named Windsor the second-runner-up for 2013 Person of the Year, behind Pope Francis and Edward Snowden. She attended a State Dinner at the White House and met with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office.
And two years later, the Supreme Court ruled by the same 5-4 margin that state bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional.
“She will go down in the history books as a true American hero," said Roberta Kaplan, who represented Windsor before the Supreme Court. "Her memory will be a blessing not only to every LGBT person on this planet, but to all who believe in the concept of b’tzelem elohim, or equal dignity for all.”
Before and particularly after her court victory, Americans came to learn about Windsor and Thea Spyer's long march toward matrimony, encumbered by Spyer's 30-year battle with multiple sclerosis and culminating in their unlikely wedding trip to Canada in 2007.
Two years later, Spyer was dead, leaving Windsor with a $363,000 federal estate tax bill that would not have been levied if Thea had been Theo. After recovering from a heart attack that doctors said was triggered by "broken heart syndrome," the petite, 83-year-old widow decided to fight back. She won at every federal court level, culminating in her Supreme Court victory in June of 2013.
"It's not 'same-sex marriage.' It's marriage. It's marriage equality," Windsor told USA TODAY during a lengthy interview in her 8th-floor Greenwich Village apartment in December 2012. She was surrounded by photos and memorabilia from the couple's marathon courtship and brief nuptials.
Windsor paid more than a half million dollars in total after Spyer's death, including to New York state, which legalized gay marriage last year. Most of the couple's wealth was in the rising value of the apartment at 2 Fifth Ave. and a small "country house" in Southampton, N.Y., bought for $35,000 in 1968. Together, the homes are worth millions today.
"The money matters to me a great deal," Windsor said at the time. But her case, Windsor v. United States, was about much more.
"The suit is about a marriage," she says — "my marriage to her and her marriage to me."
A diminutive blonde with a Betty White smile, Windsor was an unlikely legal titan. She used a master's degree in mathematics from New York University to become a senior computer systems programmer at IBM. She and Spyer spent most of their lives working, traveling, dancing — and lying.
"All through IBM, I lied about who I was," Windsor said during the interview, sporting the diamond engagement pin Spyer gave her in 1967 because a ring would have prompted unwelcome questions. "I gave Thea a guy's name. I never told the truth in those years — and then I told the truth plenty afterwards."
When multiple sclerosis began to steal Spyer's physical strength in the 1970s, Windsor quit working to help out. She also began volunteering with gay rights organizations; for starters, she computerized all their mailing lists. The harpsichord in her apartment held awards attesting to her advocacy from the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union and National Organization for Women.
Spyer's condition deteriorated over the years, requiring more lifts and ramps and motorized wheelchairs. Near the end, she was quadriplegic, with little physical ability beyond driving her wheelchair and pushing a computer mouse. When doctors gave her a year to live because of a heart condition, she popped the question.
"She got up the next morning after the doctor said that and she said, 'Do you still want to get married?'" Windsor recalled. "And I said, 'yes!' And she said, 'I do, too. Let's go.'"
Their trip to Toronto for a civil ceremony in May 2007, as well as their decades-long devotion, was chronicled in an award-winning documentary titled "Edie and Thea — A Very Long Engagement." They had two best men and four best women. And like they first did at the Greenwich Village restaurant Portofino in 1963, they danced, Edie on the arm of Thea's wheelchair.
"People asked, 'What could be different? You've lived together for over 40 years — what could be different about marriage?'" Windsor said. "And it turned out that marriage could be different."
The return flight from Canada was Spyer's last. She died on Feb. 5, 2009, with patients scheduled for appointments that day. But the marriage lived on -- in court.
In fragile health herself with an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator but still walking 10,000 steps a day, she focused on winning her case — and returning to private life as much as possible. But after the victory, the gay rights community — particularly the young people who would high-five her during Gay Pride parades — didn't allow it.
A year after her victory, Windsor reflected on recent progress for the LGBT community.
"The better we feel as citizens and as human beings — not 'queers' — the more of us come out," she told USA TODAY. "Our neighbors see us and our colleagues see us, and of course Americans, gay or straight, see us as people who live and love as they do, whose kids go to school and play with their kids. And it becomes still easier for us to be ourselves."
Windsor would marry again, to Judith Kasen-Windsor, last year.
“I lost my beloved spouse Edie, and the world lost a tiny but tough-as-nails fighter for freedom, justice and equality," Kasen-Windsor said Tuesday. "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.”