Edith Windsor, Octogenarian Widow, Beats Down DOMA (and Gives John Boehner a Piece Of Her Mind)


Pride month has just started, and yet over the course of May and just the first few days of June, the fight for gay marriage has arguably seen more progress in the last four weeks than in any time in history. In fact, if you’re a journalist on the gay marriage beat who also writes about other things, it’s been very hard to get other work done lately (not that we’re complaining).

In just the past five business days, there have been three major deals blown to the Defense of Marriage Act (and other legal barriers to marriage equality) in the federal judiciary. Last Thursday, the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled DOMA was unconstitutional in Gill v. Office of Personnel Management , a case out of Boston in which a lesbian federal worker sued the U.S. government for not recognizing her legal Massachusetts marriage to her spouse; on Tuesday, the full Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declined to rehear that court’s previous ruling which found that California’s Proposition 8 unconstitutional, meaning the Supreme Court will either need to hear the case or allow LGBT Californians to marry again; and, here in New York, a federal district judge ruled yesterday that DOMA was unconstitutional in causing Edith Windsor, the 82-year-old widow of Thea Spyer, to pay $363,000 in estate taxes after the death of her wife which a heterosexual spouse wouldn’t have had to pay.

The Voice went to speak to Windsor in person today, at a press conference in the offices of the NYCLU.

As anyone who has seen the documentary Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement knows, Windsor is a spry, delightful woman whose energy and enthusiasm make her seem more like a teenage activist than a woman in the ninth decade of her life. We had never had the chance to speak with her in person until today, and though we knew her story, it was more touching to hear it in person. Windsor and Spyer met in the Village in 60s and became engaged in 1967. (They marked their commitment with a broach and not a ring, Windsor said, because a ring would have brought unwanted questions about “who the man was” in workplaces that were not safe for being out.)

Windsor and Spyer were engaged for four decades, hoping to get married in the United States someday. Knowing Spyer only had little time left to live, they legally wed in Canada in 2007, before Syper passed away in 2009. As federal law considered them strangers to each other, Windsor was slapped with a $363,000 tax bill a straight widow would not have had to pay. Windsor sued.

A curious chain of events followed. First, at the time, gays and lesbians could not get married in New York State, although legal marriages performed in other jurisdictions were recognized by New York State; now of course they are legal. Also, the newly elected president was not for same-sex marriage. Now he is, but as Windsor’s case was evolving, Obama’s Justice Department took a step in her favor by deciding that Section 3 of DOMA was not constitutional. The Department of Justice decided it would not defend the law in court (an important detail in knowing how pro “states’ rights” Obama really is on this topic).

And here’s where things get truly bizarre. When the DOJ declines to defend a federal law, the Speaker of the House of Representatives can do so, instead. At Boehner’s direction, the Bi-partisan Legal Advisory Group (or “BLAG,” an even phonetically uglier word than “blog”) took up defending DOMA. To date, Boehner has reportedly spent $742,000 of taxpayer dollars defending DOMA (a sum just over twice the amount Windsor was screwed out of). Despite this, he is losing in every case, as judges at the various levels of the federal judiciary, appointed by presidents of both parties, are by a majority finding that legal barriers to marriage equality in general (and DOMA specifically) are unconstitutional.

What’s strangest is Boehner’s role. The speaker is not known for liking federal taxes. He’s currently braying about never considering tax hikes. He was ready to shut down the government of the United States and risk the nation’s credit rating to avoid raising anyone’s taxes.

How, then, could Boehner spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to try to hold onto $363,000 in taxes from an 82-year-old widow on a fixed income (which she should never have been charged in the first place)? We asked Windsor directly what’d she’d say to Boehner about this if she had the chance to talk to him.

With her classic grace and impecable timing, she replied simply, ” I think I’d rather not talk to him,” and brought down the house. Delightful and poised, as always.

After the conference was over, we talked to Windsor about something painful — how her first reaction when she heard the federal court had ruled in her favor was to call her beloved late wife. We asked her how she continues to cope with not talking to Spyer during these historic times. She said,

“It hurts a lot. I’m glad that I ever had the courage to sue the government…I’ve lived through some terrible pain. Do I still love her? Yes. My house is full of pictures of her, including a couple full size. What happened is, the combination of the film, and the suit, kind of gave me a reason to live after she died. ‘Cause I’m an old lady! I am going to be 83 this month. And we had a nice life, and it was enough, and that was kind of my feeling before the film, and then before the suit. My purpose now is this, and I’ve kind of fallen in love with the whole gay community, no question. So I want everybody to profit fromt this.”

Regardless of what happens from here (BLAG could very well appeal), Windsor will not be getting a rebate check from the federal government anytime soon.