It was the late 1960s, and, despite the burgeoning counterculture, Edie Windsor, who was in love with Thea Speyer, couldn’t risk wearing an engagement ring to the office. Her co-workers at IBM, where she worked as a computer programmer, would, of course, ask about who her fiancé was. So she wore a round diamond brooch that Thea had given her as her engagement “ring” when she proposed.
And so began more than 40 years of a love — “its own quiet revolutionary act,” as Hillary Clinton put it last Friday as she eulogized Edie at a memorial service at Temple Emanu-El on the Upper East Side.
Edie (that’s what everyone called her) was, many said, the Rosa Parks of the LGBTQ movement. And like Rosa Parks, whose own “quiet revolutionary act” would move a nation, Edie, with her stylish blond bob and fierce determination, refused to be treated like a second-class citizen.
Edie, who died last week in Manhattan at age 88, was a proud Jewish lesbian. Her 2013 Supreme Court case, The United States v. Windsor, changed the world and made possible legal civil marriage for same-sex couples all across America.
Edie’s partner Thea had progressive multiple sclerosis and in 2007, the two went to Canada to get legally married. When Thea died in 2009, the United States did not recognize their marriage. Edie received a huge tax bill ($363,000 to the federal government, $275,000 to the state) on the estate. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act made Edie ineligible for the estate tax exemption a spouse would have received.
As Edie would often say, “If Thea were Theo, I wouldn’t have had to pay anything.” She sued the government and on June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in her favor. It was a ruling that paved the way for federal recognition of same-sex marriage. It was, as legal analyst Dahlia Lithwick wrote in Slate, a “judicial stepping stone to the national constitutional right to marriage equality.” That came two years later.
As her (Jewish and lesbian) lawyer Roberta Kaplan has said, “It’s no coincidence that three Jewish lesbians brought down the United States government from its homophobic position.” The three refused to sit in the back of the legal bus, so to speak. They stood up for justice and equality and fought for those ideals all the way to the Supreme Court.
Although Edie was not conventionally religious, she was strongly identified as a Jew, a longtime member of CBST and very proud of the values and history as a Jew. Thea, who was featured with Edie in the documentary “Edie and Thea: The Longest Engagement,” was also Jewish and born in the Netherlands. Her father took the family out in the late 1930s, and they made their way to America.
In a statement following the news of Edie’s death, Roberta wrote, “I also know that 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.”
It was also Jewish lesbians who changed the law here in New York City and laid the groundwork for Edie and federal marriage equality. CBST members Connie Kurtz, Ruth Berman and Amy Chasanoff sued the city in 1988 for partner benefits for city teachers, and six years later the result was domestic partnership here.
Edie understood in every bone in her body the Jewish concept of “al tifrosh min hatzibur” — Don’t separate yourself from the community. She was dedicated to many organizations in the LGBT community: SAGE, LGBT Community Center, Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, Lesbian and Gay Big Apple Corps, CBST and others.
As a measure of her stature, hundreds packed Temple Emanu-El on the Upper East Side last Friday for Edie’s memorial service. Clinton remembered Edie as a feisty fighter as well as a woman of joy. During the long fight for marriage equality, Clinton said, “her strength never wavered. … It is fitting that she will be immortalized in history books in that landmark decision synonymous with equal rights and dignity under the law. But she didn’t stop there. She continued to support the needs and the rights of the LGBT community. She helped change hearts and minds, including mine. And we are forever grateful to her for that.”
In true Edie style, she fell in love in her 80s and last year married Judith Kasen, who also spoke at the memorial service. Thanks to Edie, what was once revolutionary — a same-sex couple exchanging vows — had become commonplace.
It was Robbie Kaplan who had the last word at Temple Emanu-El, ending her eulogy of Edie this way: “But although she lived to be 88, many years past the point any of her doctors expected, Edie has now left it to others — us — to take the next steps to repair the world. Edie did not view her work as completed after U.S. v. Windsor and neither should we. I believe that the best way to honor Edie’s memory is to redouble our efforts to resist any undoing of the progress that we have made together, as a community and a nation.
“Like Edie, we need to be strong and courageous in order to continue the work done by Edie and by so many others, from generation to generation, or l’dor va’dor, until the true promise of our great nation and our Constitution becomes reality.”
About that diamond “engagement” brooch: Two days after her Supreme Court victory in June 2013, Edie was the keynote speaker at CBST’s Pride Shabbat. When she entered the sanctuary, the room erupted and gave her a huge, extended standing ovation. Our hero — and a hero to millions — had come home.
She was wearing the brooch.