Jim Obergefell was lead plaintiff in “Obergefell v. Hodges,” the 2015 case in which the Supreme Court held that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.
I’ll never forget the day I met Edie Windsor. I was at an event in the ACLU offices in New York. We were introduced in the middle of a crowded room, and it was as if everyone else — everything else, really — ceased to exist. I suddenly found myself in the orbit of this mesmerizing woman. We chatted about our experiences in the landmark legal cases that ultimately led to marriage equality in the United States. But we talked more about Thea and John, our late spouses.
We both began to cry, and I remember being struck by how present Edie was, how she made me feel as if I were the only other person in that room. In the two years after we met, however, I saw again and again that this was just Edie’s way. Whether you were an old friend with many shared memories or a stranger, Edie made you feel known.
Hero. Our society has become very free in its use of that word, but if anyone fully deserved the label, it was Edie, who died Tuesday in Manhattan at 88. Her successful career in the male-dominated world of technology and her efforts to inspire and support women in that industry are reasons enough to admire her. But that isn’t why so many of us consider Edie our hero. She became our hero because of her courage in fighting to have her lawful marriage to the person she loved treated as equal to opposite-sex marriages, even in a time of great personal loss. Edie is our hero because she moved the LGBT community a giant step closer to full equality as Americans.
Edie well understood the risks and sacrifices inherent in taking on the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act after the death of her longtime partner, Thea Spyer, in 2009. Edie and Thea married in Canada in 2007, but after Thea’s death, Edie was denied the inheritance-tax exemption given to married opposite-sex couples. She pressed her lawsuit all the way to the Supreme Court, and her victory there in 2013 secured federal recognition and benefits for same-sex couples. In the fight for equality, we often say that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Few had bigger shoulders than Edie. Her strengths were those of character, commitment and generosity, and she shared these willingly and frequently. In her work with the LGBT Community Center, Lesbians Who Tech, Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders, and more, Edie was generous with her time, energy, expertise and financial support. The name Edie Windsor was synonymous with possibility, and she gave of herself so that others could turn their possibilities into reality.
Edie was always quick to offer a smile and thoughtful words of advice. Her love for and devotion to Thea were legendary, and although some shy away from the world after losing a loved one, Edie continued to enjoy life and those she met after Thea’s death in 2009. Edie fought for love, and love was returned to her in countless ways, from the hugs from strangers to the joy of her 2016 marriage to Judith Kasen-Windsor. Edie embraced life, always. She left the world better than she found it.
It isn’t often that a hero becomes a friend, and I’m grateful to have known and loved Edie. I remember coffee and conversation in her New York apartment. Riding in convertibles as grand marshals for Capital Pride in Washington. Walking on the beach in the Hamptons. Presenting her with a much-deserved award. I can see her pink hat and her mouth curled up in a smile as she gave advice or told a story. But when I think about the amount of time I actually spent with her, in the end I’m struck by how meager it seems in comparison with the emotional impact she had on me. And I realize again how fortunate I was to know this wonderful, feisty woman who did much for so many through a life well lived and love freely given.