Updated at 6:25 p.m. ET
Edith Windsor loved Thea Spyer. For nearly half a century, the two were partners and eventually were legally married as well. When Spyer died in 2009, though, the federal government didn’t recognize that love on Windsor’s tax forms, expecting her to pay more than $350,000 in estate taxes.
Windsor, whose successful campaign against the Defense of Marriage Act made her an LGBTQ icon, died Tuesday at the age of 88. Judith Kasen-Windsor, whom Windsor married last year, confirmed her death in a statement.
“I lost my beloved spouse Edie, and the world lost a tiny but tough as nails fighter for freedom, justice and equality,” Kasen-Windsor said. “Edie was the light of my life. She will always be the light for the LGBTQ community which she loved so much and which loved her right back.”
The long roots of Windsor’s legal fight dated to the mid-1960s, when she met Spyer at a restaurant in New York City. Spyer, a psychologist, proposed to Windsor in 1967 — offering Windsor a pin with diamonds rather than an engagement ring, concerned that the ring would lead others to ask some questions the pair couldn’t answer.
“She got out of the car and got down on her knees and said, ‘Edie Windsor, will you marry me?’ And this pin appeared,” Windsor recalled in an interview with NPR’s Nina Totenberg in 2013.
Nina notes there was nowhere for them to marry at the time; it would take decades — and one “lousy prognosis” for Spyer’s multiple sclerosis — before the pair finally headed to Toronto to obtain their same-sex marriage, which was also recognized by New York.
Just two years later, Spyer died. And in the weeks afterward, as Windsor looked at the bills she now faced, she was confronted with a terrible truth.
“If Thea was Theo, I would not have had to pay that,” she told Nina. The law known as DOMA, passed in 1996, barred her from receiving the federal tax benefits of marriage, no matter what New York said. “It’s heartbreaking. It’s just a terrible injustice, and I don’t expect that from my country. I think it’s a mistake that has to get corrected.”
And so, she decided to mount a legal fight to correct it herself.
After her case worked its way through the appeals courts, the Supreme Court decided in late 2012 to take it up. At the time, some gay-rights activists worried it simply might be too soon to have their day in court, concerned — as Mary Bonauto of the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders put it at the time — that the Supreme Court would want to be sure “they are not too far ahead of public opinion.”
In the end, those worries did not come to fruition. The high court decided 5-4 to overturn DOMA in 2013, dealing same-sex-marriage advocates a landmark victory.
“DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriage of others,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. “No legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the state … sought to protect in personhood and in dignity.”
It would be just two more years before the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal nationwide.
“It was a victory for families, and for the principle that all of us should be treated equally, regardless of who we are or who we love,” President Barack Obama said of the 2015 decision in a statement Tuesday.
“I thought about Edie that day,” he continued. “I thought about all the millions of quiet heroes across the decades whose countless small acts of courage slowly made an entire country realize that love is love — and who, in the process, made us all more free. They deserve our gratitude. And so does Edie.”
Obama said he spoke with Windsor a few days ago and told her “one more time what a difference she made to this country we love. ”