From Maine to Mississippi to California – we were all your children. Even if we weren’t your BFF or you hadn’t hugged or taken a selfie with us, we knew you. We smiled when we saw your fab straw hat. When you stood in front of the Supreme Court with your arms outstretched, you were reaching out to your cousin Lewis and his kids. But we felt you were celebrating with us: our community, too, was your family.
Your formal name might be Edith, but you’ll always be Edie to us. Everyone dies, but you were a force of nature. We can’t believe that you, mother to the queer community and the LGBTQ rights pioneer whose case struck down DOMA, died on Sept. 12 at age 88 in Manhattan.
When you met and fell in love with clinical psychologist Thea Spyer in 1963, queer people couldn’t say anything about being gay to their families, co-workers or all but a very few close LGBTQ friends. The idea of gays dancing with, dating or even being seen with, let alone marrying their same-sex loves, was unthinkable. Spyer proposed to you in 1967 with a diamond brooch. Because an engagement ring would have been considered beyond the pale.
Nearly 40 years later, Anne, the late love of my life, was in the hospital. Same-sex marriage wasn’t yet on the horizon. I was only allowed to be with her before she went into surgery because the nurses thought she was my sister.
My story is just one of the multitude of stories of pain and injustice due to marriage inequality that you’ve heard during your decades of LGBTQ activism. The Stonewall uprising catapulted you into queer advocacy. “Until then, I’d always had the feeling – and I know it’s ignorant and unfair – ‘I don’t want to be identified with the queens,’” you told the New York University Alumni Magazine, “But from that day on, I had this incredible gratitude. They changed my life. They changed my life forever.”
It wasn’t enough for you just to be a gay rights icon! Divorced (from a marriage with a man that you early on decided wouldn’t work because you were queer) and living on your own, you earned an M.A. in applied mathematics from NYU in 1957. You became one of a few women to work in a senior position at IBM. This was at a time when most women were homemakers in hetero marriages.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act. DOMA defined marriage as being between a man and a woman and denied same-sex couples (married where same-sex marriage was legal) federal recognition and more than 1,000 benefits. Because of DOMA when your beloved Thea died in 2009 you had to pay $363,053 in inheritance taxes. (You were married in Canada in 2007.)
I bet you had no idea you’d be the Rosa Parks of LGBTQ rights. But nothing was going to keep you from fighting injustice. Who could count how many lives were enriched when you won your battle to strike DOMA down?
My friend Shannon is among the many to benefit from your battle for justice. It was because of you, Shannon emailed me, “that I was able to get Letty’s Social Security.”
“What a difference she made to this country we love,” President Obama said of you.
You “helped to change hearts and minds, including mine,” Hillary Clinton said at your funeral.
You liked, as you’d say, “to keep it hot.” At your funeral, someone on your medical team said you were scheduled next month to talk to doctors on sex for folks in their 80s. After Thea became quadriplegic through her multiple sclerosis, you talked to the disability community. You weren’t about to give up being passionate with Thea!
Thank you, Edie, for dancing, loving and fighting for us! R.I.P.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.