Edith Windsor passed away on September 12, 2017. She was 88. For those who don’t know, Edie was the plaintiff in the 2013 Supreme Court case “United States v. Windsor” that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and led the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages performed in the thirteen states plus D.C. where they were legal. She was also a gay rights activist from 1975 until her passing, a New Yorker and a woman who loved with commitment and insistence when it was extremely difficult to do so. For me — a queer Jewish New Yorker born sixty-eight years later — Edie represented the legal triumph of civil rights in my lifetime. She is one of the reasons I have more rights today than I did when I was born. Her victories became my victories; her personal milestones became our national milestones. And I marked out my adolescence by those milestones.
Edie was born in 1929, the child of Russian Jewish immigrants, in a world that looked very different from ours, both legally and politically. Her opportunities were limited: Columbia University, just uptown from where Edie went to college, wouldn’t admit women until 1983. At a time when just over 5 percent of women in the US had a bachelor’s degree, Edie earned a master’s in Applied Math from NYU. She did that in 1957, two years before the main undergraduate campus began admitting women. In 1958 Edie got a job as a programmer at IBM; she earned her own income (in an industry still dominated today by cis, straight, white men) sixteen years before she’d be legally permitted to apply for a credit card as an unmarried woman. In 1967, she became engaged to Thea Spyer. Thea wore a diamond broach to mark their engagement because a ring would have given them away. They got married in Canada in 2007, forty years later. Their marriage wouldn’t be legally recognized in New York, their home state and mine, until 2011, two years after Thea died. Edie inherited her wife’s estate, but because, under DOMA, she couldn’t access the spousal exemption on estate taxes that straight couples receive, Edie ended up paying a couple hundred thousand dollars in estate taxes. It was that fairly unromantic, upper-middle class issue that led Edie to sue. In 2013, she won, and DOMA was overturned. In 2015, “Obergefell v. Hodges” cracked open the marriage piñata for the 37 states plus the territories that were left. That was the end of the story as I heard it in high school Gay-Straight Alliance meetings. Edie helped us win marriage, end of discussion. But of course, marriage wasn’t and isn’t the Final Boss of queer civil rights.
Edie wasn’t a perfect icon — she wasn’t especially intersectional in her approach to the movement. You’ll notice I said “gay rights” and not “LGBT rights” or even “queer justice.” A lot of people will argue that the marriage fight wasn’t the best use of our resources as a queer community, that we should have focused on employment and housing discrimination, hate crimes against transgender people of color, Title IX protections, mass incarceration and homelessness. The particular privilege of marriage that Edie sued for benefited a lot of middle-and upper-class people — estate tax exemptions are regressive; that is, they benefit rich people more than everyone else.
But for me, Edie’s victory was about recognition by the state, about social enfranchisement. When Edie was born, she was socially disenfranchised in more ways than I ever was. The US had capped the number of Eastern European immigrants like her parents. She had very few employment protections. There was little recourse for sexual harassment, the Lily Ledbetter Act wasn’t even on the horizon, abortion was both illegal and unsafe and it was outside the norm for middle-class women to work and nearly unheard of for women to work in a profession. Until she was well into her adulthood, it was nearly impossible to live openly as a lesbian.
When I was born, gay sex was illegal. So was equal marriage — in every country in the world and in every state in America. And the global HIV/AIDS crisis was growing. I have substantially greater standing as a citizen with rights to life, liberty and equal protection under the law than I did the day I was born. So do a lot of you, even if some of those rights are being rolled back right about now. When the New York state house passed marriage equality in 2011, I was thirteen and about a year out of the closet. I remember thinking, “Oh my God, my state thinks I’m a person.” I was sixteen and with my first serious partner when Edie won her case. I was nearly eighteen, a few months out from getting actual legal enfranchisement, when I gained the right to federally recognized marriage.
An age difference of a few years feels big when those years are marked by such important legislative wins. The other day, I spoke with a friend who was 22 and in college when Obergefell came down. She told me that celebrating that decision was the very first time she found a queer community. She comes from a conservative family in Texas; I come from bleeding heart East Coast liberals. But we both remember exactly where we were when we found out the federal government had decided we got to be people. I don’t concede that any level of government has the ability to grant personhood, but it’s hard to describe the feeling of having your personhood recognized on an institutional level for the first time.
It is a great privilege to have marked my childhood by civil rights battles won. A privilege of being born in the right place at the right time, sure, but mostly a privilege in that a lot of people poured a lot of resources into fighting for rights that would affect me: a white, cis-ish kid with two parents who both have graduate degrees. Of course, some of the rights I cherish are more at risk now, under the Trump administration, than they were a year ago. But frankly, marriage doesn’t seem terribly likely to be one of those rights. It’s safe in a way that DACA certainly isn’t, that abortion access and health care and the rights of immigrants and refugees aren’t. I grew up with an optimistic faith in the power of the courts to right wrongs because the court victories I learned about in school — “Loving v. Virginia,” “Brown v. Board,” “Griswold v. Connecticut” — mirrored my experiences gaining civil rights as I grew up. The wave of progress during my childhood made me buy into Martin Luther King Jr.’s belief that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It took me longer than I’d like to admit to shake that notion. But I’m grateful to Edie for Doing the Work on my behalf. She gave me the great joy and privilege of feeling like a person. Her death is a blow, but it also opens a vacancy for me — there’s an open spot to fill in the phalanx of those who defend civil rights. In gratitude to Edie, and in the hope that more of us get to experience the exhilaration of being seen as people, I recommit to trying to fill in the battle line.
Emma levine | firstname.lastname@example.org