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Friday, September 15, 2017

A Champion of Equality & the Plaintiff in the landmark case known as the Windsor Decision dies at 88

This week the country and especially the LGBT community lost a giant with the death of Edith Windsor, 88, whose fight for equality led to the landmark case known as the Windsor decision. This landmark case before the Supreme Court all started when Ms. Windsor was given a tax bill from the government and after paying the bill, she filed a lawsuit seeking a tax refund.

While same sex couples now enjoy marriage equality in all 50 states, thanks to the Obergefell v Hodges case of 2015, it was the Windsor decision in 2013 that first made same-sex marriages legal in 13 states and the District of Columbia, and ironically enough, the case had little to do with marriage, but instead involved the U.S. government sending Ms. Windsor a tax bill for $363,053.

Why did the U.S. government say Ms. Windsor owed $363,053 in taxes? And why did Ms. Windsor sue the government because of it? And what does a tax bill have to do with marriage equality? Well, let’s go back to the year 1963. This is when Ms. Windsor was hanging out at a restaurant in Greenwich Village that catered to lesbians on the weekend. Ms. Windsor met a woman named Dr. Thea Spyer who was a psychologist. 

Ms. Windsor and Dr. Spyer dated on and off for a few  years, and in 1967 Dr. Spyer asked for Ms. Windsor’s hand in marriage. For those counting, that’s a wedding proposal that would not be legal in all of the United States until 48 years later. The newly engaged couple chose a diamond brooch to mark their engagement instead of a ring. Neither were out to their employers and a ring would have caused questions to be asked and given them away.

When the Stonewall Inn uprising occurred in 1969, Ms. Windsor and Dr. Spyer made a decision that they could no longer live in the shadows and instead chose to be open about their sexuality. Soon after, Ms. Windsor retired from her computer programming job and took on what she described as a second career as an LGBT activist. 

In 1997, Ms. Windsor and Dr. Spyer’s life changed drastically with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis that ate away at her central nervous system. For Ms. Windsor, that meant she became Dr. Spyer’s fulltime caregiver and she would have to care for her fiancé with a system of pulleys, lifts and vans as her central nervous system further deteriorated. In 2007, her doctors told Dr. Spyer that she only had a year left to live. 

It was then that the couple realized that they could not wait on marriage to become legal in their state of New York. If they were going to fulfill their engagement promises and legally marry each other, they would have to go somewhere else to do it and in 2007, they wed to each other in Toronto Canada. 

When Dr. Spyer’s battle with multiple sclerosis ended and she passed away, same-sex marriages were not recognized in New York. Dr. Spyer led a successful career as a psychologist, but she also came from money. The taxes on her estate alone totaled $363,053 and that’s the bill that Ms. Windsor was told she had to pay to the federal government. 

But Ms. Windsor saw an inequity and realized that she was being treated differently under the tax laws of the United States. Had she married a man, Ms. Windsor would have been treated the same way other heterosexual couples were treated and she would have qualified for a spousal exemption to the estate tax liability. But, thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act, even though she and Dr. Spyer had lived together for 40 years, they were not seen as “spouses” in the eyes of the federal government. 

Ms. Windsor paid the $363,053 tax liability and then sued to receive a tax refund and in her lawsuit pointed out that she was being treated differently because she married a woman rather than marrying a man. While her case was about a tax refund, Ms. Windsor’s lawsuit paved the way for more than 1,138 federal benefits that were available to heterosexual couples to then be available to legally married same-sex couples. That meant that marriages that occurred within the 13 states that then recognized and allowed same-sex marriage would allow the married parties to receive federal benefits. For the other 37 states that had not legalized gay marriage, the Windsor decision did not, the Court ruled, apply to same-sex couples living in those states. 

But, the Windsor decision was groundbreaking nonetheless. And, it paved the way for the Obergefell decision that would come only two years later. For her work in equality, Ms. Windsor was Time’s Person of the year runner-up, behind Pope Francis. She became a celebrity nationally and was the grand-marshal in New York’s Pride Parade. She was recognized many times by President Obama for her commitment to equality and how that commitment helped shaped history as we know it today. 

Think for a moment about the times in which Ms. Windsor lived. She was alive during Stonewall. She was living and watching as the Aids epidemic was denied by our government while claiming the lives of so many in inner cities like New York where she lived. She struggled through The Defense of Marriage Act and the countless other legislative efforts to define marriage as a unity between a man and a woman. And it was her own case over a tax bill that paved the way for the federal government to recognize same-sex marriage in 13 states and the District of Columbia. 

I am thankful that Ms. Windsor was able to live long enough to see marriage equality become the law of the land before she passed away. She was a giant among the many who fought for equal rights who had to leave the United States to legally marry her life love of 40 plus years. She worked tirelessly as an advocate and planted trees whose shade she did not get to enjoy, but the shade of which is now enjoyed by same-sex couples in all 50 states. 

Sources: Edit Windsor, Whose Same-Sex Marriage Fight Led to Landmark Ruling, Dies at 88, New York Times; Edith Windsor, whose 2013 decision changed the landscape, dies at 88, CNN; Icon of gay rights movement dies at 88, The Guardian

Watch a Video of Edith Windsor remembering the day marriage equality was legalized and the phone call she received moments later.

The Law Office of Kevin Teets represents clients in the areas of Davidson, Sumner, Williamson, Montgomery, Robertson, Rutherford and Wilson Counties.

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