Edith Windsor, a lesbian activist who was a pioneer for LGBT rights and brought down the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, died Tuesday at age 88.
Judith Kasen-Windsor issued a statement Tuesday confirming Windsor’s death, but didn’t disclose a cause. The two were married in 2016.
“I lost my beloved spouse Edie, and the world lost a tiny but tough as nails fighter for freedom, justice and equality,” Kasen-Windsor said. “Edie was the light of my life. She will always be the light for the LGBTQ community which she loved so much and which loved her right back.”
The New York lesbian, who earned a master’s degree in mathematics from New York University in 1957, was out as member of the LGBT community at a time when being gay was criminal under state law in many parts of the country. Her longtime partner, Thea Spyer, first proposed marriage in 1967, but the two didn’t wed until 2007. They held a ceremony in Canada, one of the first countries where same-sex marriage was legal.
But Windsor is best known for being the plaintiff in the lawsuit that led to U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in 2013 striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriage. That ruling was the precursor for the 2015 Obergefell decision extending marriage equality nationwide.
Represented by New York lesbian attorney Roberta Kaplan and the American Civil Liberties Union, Windsor sued the United States for enforcing DOMA after the U.S. government forced her to pay $363,000 in estate taxes when Spyer died in 2009 of a heart condition after the two were together 44 years.
On the day of oral arguments of her case in 2013, Windsor famously appeared before the media on the steps of the Supreme Court with an iconic pink scarf that blew in the wind. At the time, Windsor said she was humbled by the role the LGBT movement bestowed upon her in pursuit of marriage equality.
“I am today an out lesbian who just sued the United States of America, which is kind of overwhelming for me,” Windsor said.
Kaplan, who took Windsor’s case to the Supreme Court and successfully argued the 1996 law was unconstitutional, said in a statement being Windsor’s lawyer “was and will always be the greatest honor of my life.”
“She will go down in the history books as a true American hero,” Kaplan said. “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.”
Windsor’s story was inspirational far beyond the LGBT community. Last year in an interview with the Washington Blade, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton identified Windsor as an LGBT person she sees as a role model. Windsor, an enthusiastic supporter of Clinton in her bid for the White House, said she was “so honored” the candidate chose her as a role model.
Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement “we lost one of this country’s great civil rights pioneers.”
“The wheels of progress turn forward because of people like Edie who are willing to stand up in the face of injustice,” Romero said. “One simply cannot write the history of the gay rights movement without reserving immense credit and gratitude for Edie Windsor. We were proud to stand with Edie when she took her fight on behalf of same-sex couples everywhere to the Supreme Court.”
A public memorial will be held Friday, Sept. 15 at 12:30 p.m. at Riverside Memorial Chapel in New York City. In lieu of flowers, Windsor had requested that any donations in her memory be made to the NYC LGBT Center, Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, the Hetrick-Martin Institute, and Services & Advocacy for LGBT Elders, or SAGE.
Aisha Moodie-Mills, CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Institute, said in a statement Windsor was “our fierce heroine” and “will be remembered as a seminal figure in our inevitable march toward equality.”
“Edith felt deeply the injustice of being denied the right to marry her partner of more than 40 years, and she committed herself to fighting back with determination and a smile,” Moodie-Mills said. “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.”