Remembering Edith Windsor, the “Rosa Parks of Gay Liberation Movement”
Judge Harvey Brownstone presided at the marriage of Edith (Edie) Windsor and Thea Spyer in Toronto on May 22, 2007. After Spyer’s death two years later, Windsor was denied equal inheritance rights because she was married to a woman. She sued the government, becoming the plaintiff in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and granted same-sex couples equal status under federal law.
Edith Windsor died on September 12 at the age of 88.
ReformJudaism.org: How did you come to officiate at the marriage of Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer?
Judge Harvey Brownstone: When same-sex marriage became legal in Canada in June 2003, a number of prominent LGBT community leaders asked me if I would officiate at these weddings. Tens of thousands of same-sex couples at home and abroad wanted to get married, and there were few options for them. Other than the Metropolitan Community Church and the Unitarian Church, no religious institutions in Canada were then willing to preside at same-sex marriages. I felt it was incumbent on me as a gay judge to serve my community and I naively agreed to be the “go to” person. Within 2 weeks, I received 8,000 emails from all over the world, crashing the court’s server!
Among those seeking your services were Edie and Thea. What kind of impression did they make on you?
When I married them, they had been together for 40+ years. Thea was in the final stages of Multiple Sclerosis and required a great deal of personal care, which she received lovingly from Edie. Thea’s doctor had told her that she was dying, and it was her last wish to get married in Toronto, which required the accompaniment of an entourage of devoted medical staff, caregivers, and friends.
For most people, marriage is a beginning; for Edie and Thea it was a culmination – a celebration and affirmation of their deep love, commitment, and devotion. Thea could not put the ring on Edie’s finger or sign the marriage documents on her own; someone held her hands and steered her movements. The wedding was profoundly moving in a way I have not experienced before or since.
What do you think inspired their resolve to be formally married?
Thea and her family were among the very few Jews who were able to escape Nazi-occupied Holland. They had the means to buy their way out. The family’s ordeal traumatized Thea. Knowing what it is like to be feared and hated as a Jew, she vowed never again to allow herself to be discriminated against. When she came out as a lesbian and got involved with Edie in the 1960s, the two embraced the fledgling gay liberation movement.
After Thea’s death, Edie challenged the U.S. federal inheritance laws, which required her to pay a tax of $363,053. Had Edie been married to a “Theo” instead of Thea, she would not have been subjected to this tax. Edie asked the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act so that all federal laws applying to opposite-sex couples be upheld as well for same-sex married couples in those states which allow same-sex marriage – and she prevailed!
Do you believe that ultimately same-sex marriage will be legally sanctioned in America nationwide?
Yes, because no civil rights movement in the U.S. – whatever the minority – has ever failed. Put simply – and no one should understand this better than we Jews – civil rights are not just about the law, and they are not just about rights; they are about human dignity.
We are all made in God’s image. When we discriminate against and hurt each other, we hurt God. And that is why – whether we are gay, straight, or plaid – this issue needs to matter to us all.