Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer: When Edie Met Thea

1.9.2011

By Aaron Hicklin

Her lawsuit overturned DOMA, which was ruled 'unconstitutional' by the Supreme Court

Photography by Andy Ryan

Edie Windsor met Thea Spyer in a distant New York City, before Stonewall, long before AIDS. It was 1965; the Beatles were singing 'Yesterday,' and Bewitched was in its first season. They met, and they danced, and they fell in love. They were both professional women -- Thea was a clinical psychologist with a practice in New York; Edie spent much of her life as a computer systems consultant for IBM. In 1975, Thea was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which advanced rapidly until she could no longer walk, though she continued practicing throughout her life. The couple married in Toronto in 2007, but Thea's death in 2009 resulted in a $350,000 penalty in federal estate taxes that would have been avoided if they were a heterosexual couple. Last November, Edie -- who was recently the subject of a documentary, Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement -- filed a lawsuit, with the aid of the ACLU, challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife. Here she recalls her 44-year relationship.

I had crushes on girls in my early life, but I mostly dated guys. I married a guy I adored at college, but I was jealous if I saw two women out together. And finally, after less than a year, I said, 'Honey, this is wrong. You deserve more and I need something else.' We didn't talk again until my 70th birthday when he called to say, 'I still love you.' And that was great. My mother never discussed sex with me, but when I told her I was getting a divorce, she said, 'How is the sex?' And I said, 'It's not.' And she said, 'Then there's nothing to hold you there.' That was all. If my parents had known the truth, would they have stopped loving me? I don't think so. Ultimately when they met Thea, it was perfectly obvious that we were together.

I remember reading a little lesbian paperback about a schoolteacher who came to New York for the summer, and she looks in the mirror, and she's all dressed up, and she says, 'You're in New York, where anything can happen.' Then she says, 'Oh, come on, what could happen?' And finally, she says to herself, 'I could kiss a woman.' And I read that, and I said, 'Where!?' I couldn't imagine how you found them. Once, when I came in from Philadelphia for a wedding, I stopped a woman wearing a trench coat and a pink button-down shirt, and I asked if there was a woman's bar around, and she directed me to what was Elle's Bar at the time. So I went to this bar, and I was dressed to the teeth -- and no one was dressed to the teeth -- and I sat there at the bar nursing my drink, but no one talked to me! And that was it. I went back to my hotel. That was my first New York bar experience.

I came to New York to be a lesbian when I divorced. Near Downing Street there was a bar called the Laurels. I went maybe twice a week, and I got to know people, and I never paid for a drink myself. I always ended up with more money on the table than I started with. I would get little notes from girls the next day saying, 'Forget the others,' but I felt most strongly that with a woman you don't touch her until you can't bear not to. I spent a lot of time in that bar. There was a night when it was empty and silent, and I sat there for maybe half an hour, and I thought, There's going to be a raid. Turned out it was Election Day.

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