At age 83, Edith Windsor gets plenty of compliments for her courage to take on the federal government in a landmark case that has put attitudes about gay America before the Supreme Court.
But the Philadelphia-born former IBM executive scoffs at how much gumption was necessary to go to court at a time when society seems to be getting more conscious that a closed-minded approach to differences in sexuality appears to do more harm than good.
"The world has progressed," Windsor said. "At the beginning of World War II, they really did think we had horns."
Windsor's lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan is one of two the Supreme Court agreed Dec. 7 to take up. The other is over California's ban on same-sex unions. Windsor's dispute is about federal benefits for legally married gay couples.
After the 2009 death of her spouse, Thea Clara Spyer, Windsor suffered an attack of stress cardiomyopathy, also known as broken heart syndrome, that was so bad that her heart stopped. "I was ready to go. I didn't care," she said.
Now, she's found new reason to live.
In the court case, Windsor maintains that the federal government's insistence in the Defense of Marriage Act that a marriage can be defined only as a relationship between a man and a woman meant she was not entitled to a marital deduction on Spyer's estate.
That meant, she said, that she owed $363,053 in taxes that she would not have to pay if the law did not unconstitutionally discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
Spyer's death came less than two years after they were married in Canada, when they realized that, with Windsor's heart condition and Spyer's deteriorating multiple sclerosis, they might not live long enough to wait for New York to approve same-sex marriages.
The threat of discrimination was not new. Early in her life, Windsor kept her sexuality from her family and friends, mindful of the dangers.
In 1963, Windsor met Spyer at a Greenwich Village restaurant. About two years later, Windsor suggested they date for a year and consider engagement for another year if that went well. Their engagement stretched for four decades.
Spyer, worried an engagement ring would unintentionally reveal Windsor's sexual orientation to her IBM colleagues, gave her a circular diamond brooch she wears to this day.
In 1968, Spyer, a psychologist, and Windsor bought a small house together in Southampton and traveled frequently.
Windsor said she hopes the Supreme Court rules in a way that can lift the gay community past the effects of discrimination.
"I keep saying, 'Keep me alive until after the Supreme Court,' " she said. "It's a very important case. It's bigger than marriage, and I think marriage is major. I think if we win, the effect will be the beginning of the end of stigma."