Last week, I changed my phone background.
When I heard the news last Tuesday that Edie Windsor — a Philadelphia-born champion of LGBTQ rights and a 1950 College of Liberal Arts alumna — had died at 88 years old, I felt a pang of hurt. I was compelled to change the image on my lock screen to a photo of Windsor. Now, when I unlock my iPhone, she smiles back at me — marching at a pride parade and wearing a shirt that reads, “Nobody knows I’m a lesbian.”
Windsor was instrumental in the legalization of same-sex marriage. She and her partner, Thea Spyer, were together for more than 40 years when they were legally married in Canada in 2007, before same-sex marriage became legal in the United States. When Spyer died in 2009, she left her entire estate to Windsor.
But Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act barred Windsor from claiming Spyer’s estate unless she paid more than $350,000 in estate taxes — an amount that surviving spouses are exempt from paying. Since Windsor wasn’t able to legally marry Spyer in the U.S., she had to foot the bill.
Windsor sued, arguing that DOMA was unconstitutional. In 2013, four years after her wife died, Windsor won and DOMA was struck down.
As a queer woman, I’ve experienced my own set of challenges. I face small acts of discrimination every day. Wherever I go, people assume I’m straight. When I hold hands with women in public, I hear men snicker around me. Worse yet, when I’m caught kissing a woman in public, I often turn around to see men’s jaws on the floor. I know that to them, I’m little more than a real-life manifestation of their fetishes.
But when I think about Edie Windsor, I remember how lucky I am.
Windsor spent almost a year married to a man before she decided that she wanted to be with women. Even after she met Spyer, Windsor had to keep her relationship under wraps — she hid it from her family members and even some friends. At work, Windsor invented a relationship with Spyer’s made-up brother Willy to explain why she called the office so much. When the two got engaged, Windsor was so afraid that a traditional engagement ring might expose her sexuality that she instead wore a circular diamond pin.
Windsor waited more than 40 years to marry the love of her life, and when her wife died two years later, she was suddenly responsible for an enormous bill.
I’m aware that in many ways, I have a lot of privilege. The challenges I face often seem inconsequential compared to Windsor’s. My family members and friends accept my sexuality wholeheartedly. I’m out at work, and I’m allowed to discuss and even write essays about my queerness. In my lifetime, I’ll probably never have to worry whether I can marry the person I love.
I’m lucky in these ways — and many more — because Edie Windsor came before me.
When the news broke in 2013 that DOMA was ruled unconstitutional, I received a push notification to my phone and I immediately started to cry tears of joy. I attended an impromptu pride parade at the Stonewall Inn. I celebrated with a community of LGBTQ folks who suddenly felt secure in their right to spend their lives with the people they love.
When I unlock my phone screen now and reveal Windsor’s smiling face, I feel a sense of deja vu. It’s like I’m 17 years old again, first receiving the news that I have the right to marry.
And for that, I have Edie Windsor to thank.