Edith Windsor, the plaintiff whose case led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling recognizing same-sex marriage, died Tuesday in Manhattan at 88, her widow and attorney said.
Windsor’s 2013 victory over a section in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) turned her into a gay rights icon and energized the movement that eventually toppled bans against gay marriage in this country. After the death of her first wife, Windsor, a retired IBM systems programmer, found herself in the limelight when she fought against paying a $363,053 estate tax bill because the IRS refused to grant the same exemptions given to heterosexual couples.
“The world lost a tiny but tough as nails fighter for freedom, justice and equality,” said the activist’s second spouse, Judith Kasen-Windsor. “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.”
Windsor was an ally for Long Island’s gay community, helping to cement the movement in the suburbs over the past 10 years by hosting the LGBT Network’s summer kickoff each year at her Southampton home and speaking at numerous events, such as the grand opening of the East End’s first LGBT community center, her friends said.
When she served as the grand marshal of the Long Island Pride Parade in 2014, she was the first to have security walk alongside her convertible because so many people wanted to rush up and thank her, organizers said.
“Edie was sort of like Cher and Madonna — she goes by one name in our community,” said David Kilmnick, a close friend and head of the LGBT Network, based in Bay Shore. “I called her a hero. . . . Even with her health problems, that never stopped her. When people requested it, Edie wouldn’t just go to the event. You’d see her enjoying it, either having a drink or a little dance or a big smile. Edie never slowed down.”
Former President Barack Obama, who said he spoke to Windsor a few days ago, posted a tribute on Facebook in one of the many accolades that poured in from political, entertainment and LGBT circles.
“Few were as small in stature as Edie Windsor — and few made as big a difference to America,” Obama wrote. “And because people like Edie stood up, my administration stopped defending the so-called Defense of Marriage Act in the courts.”
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo saw her as an “iconic New Yorker.” “She embodied the New York spirit, taking it upon herself to tear down barriers for others and ensure marriage equality was the law of the land,” he said.
Windsor had said she initially thought she was fighting a tax case, not an equal rights battle, when she sued the federal government in 2010 over the estate taxes.
She had married psychologist Thea Spyer in Canada in 2007 after being together 40 years, and when her wife died two years later, Windsor was slapped with a six-figure estate tax bill that would have been fully exempted had Spyer been a man.
Windsor was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, and the 5-4 Supreme Court verdict brought tears to the activist. The landmark decision struck down the section of DOMA that treated same-sex couples differently.
“If I had to survive Thea, what a glorious way to do it,” Windsor said at the Manhattan headquarters of the ACLU after the ruling came down.
“This is the beginning of the end of the stigma. It’s a different level of dignity.”
Her fame never went to her head, said state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who has attended gay rights events hosted by Windsor. She spoke in depth to friends and strangers alike, he said.
“She had a sense of humor and a poise about her that made everybody feel very welcome and comfortable,” DiNapoli said. “Whether you knew her really well or you just knew her from meeting her a couple of times, you felt like she was a great friend to you.”
Windsor knew what it had been like to be stereotyped and stigmatized, Kilmnick said. As a woman in the computer field decades ago, she experience her share of gender discrimination, he said.
Even after her Supreme Court victory, she continued speaking out on human rights, including immigration and transgender identity.
She was helping to create a new statewide gay rights group after Empire State Pride Agenda, the state’s leading LGBT group, disbanded in 2015.
“Edie wanted to make sure everyone was protected from discrimination,” Kilmnick said, “but also to make sure that we keep what was won at the Supreme Court.”
A public memorial will be held 12:30 p.m. Friday at Riverside Memorial Chapel in Manhattan.
1929: Windsor is born in Philadelphia
Early 1950s: Moves to New York City after a brief marriage to a man
1957: Windsor receives a master’s degree in mathematics from New York University and later works for IBM
1963: Windsor meets Thea Spyer, with whom she would spend more than 40 years of her life
2007: Windsor marries Spyer legally in Canada
2009: Spyer dies as a result of complications related to multiple sclerosis
2010: Windsor sues the federal government, saying its definition of marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman prevented her from getting a marital deduction on Spyer’s estate
2013: In a U.S. Supreme Court victory for Windsor, the court rules that legally married same-sex couples are entitled to the same federal benefits that heterosexual couples receive
2016: Windsor marries Judith Kasen
Source: The Associated Press