U.S. News

Octogenarian lesbian widow gets her day in Supreme Court

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Gay marriage supporters in front of the Supreme Court only wanted to see one celebrity on Wednesday.

Plaintiff Edith Windsor smiles as she addresses reporters outside after arguments in her case against the Defense of Marriage Act at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, March 27, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

As Edith Windsor walked out of the court after arguments in her case challenging the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, a huge roar erupted from hundreds of protesters gathered on the steps.

“Edie! Edie!” they chanted as the diminutive 83-year-old laughed and blew kisses to the crowd.

Windsor sued the federal government after she was forced to pay additional estate taxes because it did not recognize her marriage to a woman, Thea Spyer, under the law known as DOMA.

She has since become the face of the legal challenge and a heroic figure to supporters who hope the high court will strike down the law and confer access to federal benefits on an estimated 130,000 legally married gay couples nationwide.

Windsor, a New York resident and former IBM consultant, and Spyer, a psychologist, met in the 1960s in a New York restaurant and spent four decades engaged to be married before they finally tied the knot in Canada in 2007. Spyer died in 2009.

For years as a closeted lesbian, Windsor wore a circle diamond pin rather than an engagement ring to hide the truth, a pin she showed off to reporters outside the courthouse in a mark of how much things have changed.

“I am today an out lesbian who just sued the United States government, which is kind of overwhelming for me,” Windsor said. “I’m speaking to you guys freely. I’d have been hiding in a closet 10 years ago.”

She said that there is a simple rebuttal to those who question why gay couples deserve the right to marry.

“It’s a magic word,” she said. “For anybody who doesn’t understand why we want it and why we need it, it is magic.”

Spyer died after a long battle with multiple sclerosis, leaving Windsor so grief-stricken that she suffered a heart attack, she said.

“In the midst of my grief, I realized that the federal government was treating us as strangers, and I paid a humongous estate tax, and it meant selling a lot of stuff to do it, and it wasn’t easy,” she said.

Windsor paid more than $363,000 in taxes on Spyer’s $4.1 million estate, unable to take advantage of a tax break available to affluent Americans because her spouse was a woman.

Windsor said she was happy with the way arguments had gone at the court.

“The justices were gentle, if that’s the word I want,” she said, drawing laughs from reporters. “I felt we were all very respected.”

As she spoke to reporters, the crowd continued to shout her name, until she decided it was time to give them what they wanted.

“I’ll tell you, I’m going to try to excuse myself if everybody won’t be mad at me,” she told reporters. “There are a lot of people there who came to see me, and I just want to go see them.”

And with that, she made her way down the steps, surrounded by a phalanx of photographers and cameramen, as people in the crowd shouted, “Thank you, Edie! Thank you for fighting for us!”

Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Cynthia Osterman