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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Filler: The diminutive woman rocking the foundations of marriage

83-year-old lesbian widow Edie Windsor greets same-sex marriage

83-year-old lesbian widow Edie Windsor greets same-sex marriage supporters as she leaves the Supreme Court in Washington, DC. (March 27, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

It's hard to picture 83-year-old Edie Windsor destroying anything more formidable than a filet mignon. Honestly, I wouldn't think she'd be so rough on a steak if I hadn't actually seen her get after one.

But Windsor is the plaintiff in one of the Defense of Marriage Act cases now before the Supreme Court. Those who believe her same-sex marriage to Thea Spyer, after a four-decade engagement, should have no legal validity, also accuse Windsor and her supporters of trying to undermine the foundations of traditional marriage.

Windsor, who came to Long Island this month to be honored and speak at Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth's 20th anniversary gala, is tiny and twinkly and charming. She was perfectly groomed and stylish in a black satiny pantsuit accented by a pink scarf. Think Hillary Clinton if she put out a line of eveningwear. Think your great-aunt Alice at a swank bat mitzvah. But it would take a vivid imagination to think "destroyer of society."

LIGALY does very fine work, some of it by helping gay young people become comfortable with themselves through connecting with other teens they can relate to. Several of those kids spoke at the event about the help and hope LIGALY provides. The recent anti-gay crimes in New York City, which Windsor marched to protest this week, show just how much these kids face and just how much such support is still needed.

A highlight of the evening was a quiet moment, easily missed: seeing Windsor, surrounded by a crowd of these adoring kids, as she eagerly perused photos of their friends and proms on smartphones.

On her jacket was an unusual diamond broach, the diameter of a largish cigar. It is, in some circles, a famous piece of jewelry, her engagement ring from a time when, as a senior programmer at IBM, she couldn't wear a traditional band on her finger for fear of questions about her fiance.

Windsor's legal complaint is this: In 2007, she and Spyer were married in Toronto. Spyer died in 2009, and by that time the state of New York was recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions. But because of the refusal of the federal government to recognize such marriages, Windsor had to pay $363,000 in federal taxes on what she inherited from her wife. Had the marriage been federally recognized, no estate taxes would have been levied.

In a perfect world, there shouldn't be any government licensing of marriage, whether the participants are same-sex, opposite-sex or a sextet. Marriage is a commitment between people, and an important one, but it's not one governments need to approve or reject.

Neither should there be special privileges or tax breaks for married people. There's no reason people should have to marry to visit each other in the hospital, or leave each other their stuff without penalty.

But in the real world there will be government-sanctioned marriages, and tax codes designed to encourage them, and we're stuck with the debate of whether Edie and Thea should have had the same rights as a heterosexual couple.

The battle is so emotional that conservatives, on gay marriage, argue against their own beliefs. Those who say these women can't marry and are subject to those estate taxes, oppose estate taxes. Those who argue that the federal government has the right to override New York's acceptance of gay marriage oppose the federal government's right to override states on . . . anything. But that's the wonky truth, the cold academic reasons that the fight against gay marriage stems not from a legal misunderstanding by many conservatives but from a willful lie on their part.

The human truth rests in Windsor herself, a small, tidy and graceful octogenarian, fighting for what she believes in and deserves, supporting kids who need all they can get.

No one should need a government marriage license, but if anyone deserves one, it would be her.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.