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LGBTQ rights icon Edie Windsor, who forced the federal government to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples, passed away at her home in New York on Tuesday. She was 88 years old.
Windsor sued the federal government for forcing her to pay federal estate taxes of more than $363,000 after Thea Spyer, her partner of 40 years, died in 2009, two years after the couple had legally married in Canada.
Had she and Spyer been a heterosexual married couple whose marriage was recognized by the government, Windsor would have been exempt from having to pay the estate taxes.
In her lawsuit, Windsor claimed that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which only granted federal recognition to marriages between a man and a woman, was unconstitutional because it singled out sam-sex marriage partners for disparate treatment.
In a landmark 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that section of the Defense of Marriage Act was indeed unconstitutional, finding that it had violated Windsor’s Fifth Amendment rights not to be “deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.”
As a result of her case, same-sex couples who were married in the District of Columbia and the 13 states where marriage equality had been legalized prior to the decision were entitled to federal recognition, including the right to inherit property from their spouses tax-free, as well as the right to receive tax breaks, Social Security survivor and veterans’ benefits, and insurance coverage for health care.
Following Windsor’s case, other lawsuits challenged the constitutionality of the remaining 37 states with bans on same-sex marriage. In a 2015 decision that built upon the principles established in Windsor’s case, the Supreme Court once again ruled in a 5-4 decision to legalize all marriages between same-sex couples.
In a recent interview with Metro Weekly, Windsor expressed concern over the appointment of Judge Neil Gorsuch, but nonetheless advised present-day activists to “hang in” and stay connected with other members of their community as they fight back against any attempts to erode or overturn policies guaranteeing LGBTQ equality.
“Don’t let anything make you feel that somehow they can beat us, because they can’t,” she said. “We’ve got some very strong Supreme Court precedents on our side. It would be very difficult to destroy what we have.”
Windsor’s second wife, Judith Kasen-Windsor, issued a statement mourning her, saying the world “lost a tiny but tough-as-nails fighter for freedom, justice and equality.”
“Edie was the light of my life,” she said. “She will always be the light for the LGBTQ community which she loved so much and which loved her right back.”
Roberta Kaplan, the lawyer who represented Windsor during her lawsuit challenging DOMA, called the 88-year-old former computer programmer for IBM a “true American hero.”
“Representing Edie Windsor was, and will always be, the greatest honor of my life,” Kaplan said in a statement. “With Edie’s passing, I lost not only a treasured client, but a member of my family. I know that Edie’s memory will always be a blessing to Rachel, myself, and Jacob. I also know that her memory will be a blessing not only to every LGBT person on this planet, but to all who believe in the concept of b’tzelem elohim, or equal dignity for all.”
LGBTQ groups offered their condolences to Kasen-Windsor and praised Windsor’s bravery in choosing to take her case to the nation’s highest court.
“[Edie] called for the respect and dignity denied to same-sex spouses, and the Supreme Court heard her plea. Because of Edie, we are a more perfect union,” Susan Sommer, director of constitutional litigation at Lambda Legal, said in a statement. “She left an indelible mark on all who knew her story, and all whose love is now recognized and protected because of the victory she helped secure for LGBT people.”
“Our fierce heroine Edith Windsor devoted her final years to her people — the LGBTQ community — and will be remembered as a seminal figure in our inevitable march toward equality,” added Aisha Moodie-Mills, president and CEO of the Victory Fund. “I will never forget Edith standing on the steps of the Supreme Court, describing marriage as more than just rights and benefits but also as ‘magic’ — a powerful recognition of indescribable love. Edith opened the door for all LGBTQ Americans to experience this magic — and we are forever indebted to her because of it.”
“Edie Windsor is a legend who changed the course of history for the better,” Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, said in a statement. “She touched countless lives, and we at GLAAD are deeply saddened by her passing, but her kindness, compassion, and legacy will endure.”
A public memorial for Windsor will be held on Friday, Sept. 15 at Riverside Memorial Chapel at 12:30 p.m. In lieu of flowers, Windsor had requested, prior to her death, that any donations in her memory be made to The LGBT Center, Callen-Lorde, Hetrick-Martin Institute, and SAGE.
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