Theirs was a love that just wouldn’t die. It kept its fire right up to the end when Thea Spyer finally lost her battle with the slow and debilitating disease of multiple sclerosis in 2009. Edith Windsor cared for Thea with all the love and devotion any spouse provides their beloved partner of 44 years as their light starts to go out. Like a flame on a candle, however, Edie kept carrying that light forward – in her honor- with all the spirit and inspiration of Joan of Arc leading the forces of France to victory.
Married couples, according to the federal tax code, can transfer money or property from spouse to spouse upon death without triggering estate taxes (the “unlimited marital deduction”). But gay couples, after the Defence of Marriage Act DOMA, a 1996 federal statute, have no such rights, even if the marriage is recognized by their state of residence, as Edie and Thea’s was by New York. It was not simply because she was ordered to pay $363,000 in estate taxes because the federal government did not recognise the pair’s marriage based on DOMA; it was much, much more than that. It was about love, and the right to cherish, honor, and protect the one you had made the promise to. Those are not just empty words and phrases, platitudes from across the ages. They are commitments and promises we all try so hard to keep, some more successfully than others. Those that do hang in there and make it by the side of their spouse to their last breathe understand all too well what it takes. They know it is no easy fete. To honor them means to continue to be inspired by their spirit long after they have passed, and so it was in Thea Spyer’s honor that Edith Windsor marched forth and appealed her case to the Supreme Court. Windsor appealed, and won. In 2011, the Supreme Court agreed to hear her challenge to the Defence of Marriage Act – a decision Windsor said, “Made her delirious with joy.”
At the time Thea and Edie engaged in 1967, they never dreamed they would be able to marry. The pair met in Portofino, a restaurant in Greenwich Village. It was all about dancing then. They would often go to parties and just dance. As Windsor tells it, they danced until she got a hole in her stocking. For two years they continued to go dancing until they finally started dating. Spyer proposed to Windsor in 1967, with a brooch rather than a ring – Windsor and NYU-trained mathematician and fast-rising IBM programmer, just back from a fellowship at Harvard University, did not want to face questions from co-workers about the husband-to-be.
The couple moved into an apartment on Fifth Avenue, near Washington Square in Manhattan, where Windsor still lives, and bought a house together in Southampton, Long Island. Windsor rose to the highest technical position within IBM, and Spyer, a psychology PhD from Adelphi University, saw patients in their apartment. In the years following the Stonewall riots they both marched and demonstrated for equal rights.
Even shortly before Thea died, Edie gave a rousing speech at a rally on the steps of City Hall in Manhattan: “Married is a magic word, and it is magic throughout the world. It has to do with our dignity as human beings, to be who we are openly. People see us differently. We heard from hundreds of people, from every stage of our lives, pouring out congratulations. Thea looks at her ring every day and thinks of herself as a member of a special species that can love and couple, ‘until death do us part.’” Windsor’s lawyers contended DOMA denigrates Edie and Thea’s “loving, committed relationship that should serve as a model for all couples.” Edie and Thea not only talked the talk, they walked the walk and when Thea was no longer walking on this earth, Edie walked forth in her honor.
In the award-winning 2009 documentary film, Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement, by Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir, Thea stated, “We immediately just fit – our bodies fit.”
Of Thea, Edie said, “She was beautiful, it was joyful, and that didn’t go away.”
In 2007, the day after Thea learned from her doctors that she had about one year left to live Thea and Edie agreed they should get married while they still had time, and Thea still had the energy to travel to Canada where same-sex marriage had become legal. So they flew off to Canada to tie the knot. Accompanied by six of their friends, Thea 75 and Edie 77 were married in Toronto by Canada’s first openly gay judge, justice Harvey Brownstone – one milestone after another.
Thea’s health continued to deteriorate. Edie eventually took leave of her position with IBM and became Thea’s full-time care giver. Getting ready for bed could take an hour, preparing to leave the house in the morning three or four. Two years later, in 2009, Thea was gone. Not only did Edie suffer grief as anyone does when they lose the love of their life, in set back after set back, she suffered a heart attack, then the demand that she pay the $363,000.00 in federal estate taxes. Even though two lower courts had already ruled that it was unconstitutional for Windsor to have to pay the $363,000 in federal estate taxes, it would be necessary for Edie to start selling her belongings so she could meet the Federal government’s demand that she pay the bill. This was not easy. In fact, it was very, very difficult and in Edie’s mind, very, very wrong and unnecessary as far as she was concerned. After all, Thea and Edie were married. She felt she should inherit without penalty just like other widows. She felt the federal government was treating them differently from other marrieds. She lived on a fixed income and it wasn’t easy for her to comply. It felt like a punishment. She was always thinking of Thea, the life they had shared together, the deep love they had given each other over the years and though she was now 83, tired and not strong physically, she felt the need to continue to fight the good fight in Thea’s honor. Onward she fought. Then, lo and behold, she finally won! She won at the Supreme Court on June 26, 2013 in a landmark decision; A decision that has had and will continue to have an enormous impact on the lives of millions of gay married couples throughout the country.
In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling the Obama Administration and several federal executive departments and agencies such as the Office of Personnel Management, began to extend federal rights, privileges and benefits to married same-sex couples by changing regulation in order to conform with the Supreme Court decision in Windsor: Most importantly, as a result of the Windsor decision, married same-sex couples – regardless of domicile, have tax benefits which include the previously unavailable ability to file joint tax returns with the IRS, military benefits, federal employment benefits for employees of the US Government and immigration benefits.
Although every day efforts are being made to thwart the changes the new law has created giving same sex marriage couples the rights they are entitled to, it is due in large measure to the efforts of Thea and Edith Windsor and the love they shared. Windsor said. “It’s enormously satisfying and fulfilling and exciting to be where we are now. I think she’d (Thea) be so proud and happy and just so pleased at how far we have come.”