My first, openly gay pal was a guy called Mark. We worked together at an Advertising agency in Johannesburg. I was 19 and the Creative Department secretary. Mark was a budding art director. I was fascinated that he only ever wore shades of grey. He was amused that I said anything that came into my head – and knew how to pronounce Tao correctly (he was a huge fan of ‘the right way’).
We had lunch together every day – sitting in the sun outside the ugly concrete building that housed our agency. And imagined our futures. I would travel all over the world and be rich. He would find someone who loved him, get married and have a gracious home – filled with his delicate watercolours and sunlight. We would tease each other about the role reversal, and plan what we would wear to his wedding. Then he would laugh and say ruefully: “as if …”.
Neither of us really understood how hard it would be for his dreams to come true. Not only were we living deep in the Apartheid era when being gay was considered ‘a sin against God’; but we were mere years away from the first AIDS deaths. Those four letters ultimately took Mark’s life. He never heard the words: “Will you marry me?”
Last month Edith Windsor stood up in front of the Supreme Court and explained to some of the finest legal minds in America why gay people had the right to not only hear those words, but to follow them through and live according to them. DOMA (The Defence of Marriage Act), she said, was unconstitutional. Because DOMA decrees that legally marriage can only considered being between a man and a woman.
Edith didn’t agree – she had been with her partner, Thea, for 42 years. They had created a life together and lived by the same marriage covenant that governed heterosexual couples. They shared a home and friends, and they shared their earnings over the years. Windsor worked as a programmer with IBM. Spyer was a psychologist. They had even wed legally in Canada. They were a ‘regular’ old married couple. Yet here she was: “I never could have imagined that this day would come – the day that I would be ‘out’ as an 83-year-old lesbian, suing the federal government.”
In 1965 – fresh from a brief, one-year marriage and needing a change of scene – Edith Windsor moved to New York City. She wanted a new life, a new job and … she recalled pleading with an old friend… she wanted to go “where the lesbians go”. The friend obliged and one Friday night Edith found herself in Portofino, a restaurant in New York’s Greenwich Village. “Somebody brought Thea over and introduced her. And we ended up dancing,” she recalled. “And we immediately just fit.”
Although they couldn’t live openly for much of their relationship, the women became engaged in 1967 “with a circular diamond brooch that symbolized the rings we weren’t able to wear on our fingers”.
“We were mildly affluent and extremely happy,” Windsor told CNN. “We were like most couples. We lived through good times – with jobs that we loved, great friends and a lot of dancing. But we also depended on each other for strength through the vicissitudes of aging and illness.”
Illness was to play a big part in what happened next. Because in 1977: Thea was diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis which became completely debilitating over time. In her last years, she was quadriplegic – but she remained as sharp as ever. “MS never impacted her mind. She saw patients right to the end.”
In 2007, the couple heard from Thea’s doctors that they were running out of time: Thea had less than a year to live. And 40 years into their relationship – the couple decided to get married: “we wanted to be married for the same reason most people want to marry: to publicly and legally express our love and commitment to one another.” So they headed for Canada – where same-sex marriages were legal.
“When our wedding announcement ran in The New York Times, we heard from hundreds of people from every stage of our lives — playmates and schoolmates, colleagues, friends and relatives – pouring out love and congratulations because we were married. That’s why marriage is different – it’s a magic word recognized by everyone as a demonstration of commitment and love.”
As an added benefit, New York courts had recognized ‘foreign same-sex marriages’ as valid. Which meant they would be afforded the same rights as any other couple in their home state.
When Thea died in 2007, Edie was so devastated with grief that she ended up in hospital after a heart attack. Trying to complete the necessary paperwork in the middle of her sorrow: she realized that “the federal government would not recognize our marriage”. DOMA restricts federal marriage benefits and state-to-state recognition of marriages only to unions between a man and a woman. “Because of DOMA, I was required to pay $363,000 in federal estate taxes that I would not have had to pay had I been married to a man.”
They might have tied the knot legally – but in the US Government’s eyes – Spyer was little more than Windsor’s friend.
As her health improved – Edith’s anger gave way to action. Why, she and her lawyers argued, should her relationship with Spyer be any different when it came to rights, taxes and more … than a heterosexual couple? Why should Windsor have to pay, literally, for losing her soul mate?
Questions that eventually brought her to Washington. And questions that will see the Supreme Court weigh the constitutionality of DOMA through the prism of Windsor and Spyer’s story. It is one of two cases related to same-sex marriage that the high court is considering. The other addresses California’s Proposition 8. The court is expected to rule on both cases by mid-June.
Even with those cases pending, Windsor said that for the first time, three years after Spyer’s death – she finally felt she could breathe and celebrate. It was a day she relished, and one she didn’t entirely expect after all her heartache. “What I’m feeling is elated. Did I ever think it could come to be, altogether? Not a chance in hell.”
She hopes her struggle will help gay teenagers “fall in love knowing there’s a future,” that children of gay couples won’t feel the need to explain their families, and that homophobia becomes a thing of the past. “It’s different because somewhere you’re a hidden person, and suddenly you’re a citizen of the world”, she said. “I feel like I’m representing them.”
Marvin Gaye believed “there are three things that’s fo’ sho, taxes, death and trouble”. And Marvin knew about life. I think love is fo’ sho’ too. So is the unrelenting determination of the gay lobby. And the indignation of those of us who believe that everyone should hold the same rights. Regardless of who they fall in love with.
I like to think if my friend Mark had been around he would have made it his business to be outside that court come the middle of the month. Dressed in dove grey cashmere to honour the occasion.
(For more on this story watch: “Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement”. All quotes attributed in this piece to Edie Windsor come from the documentary. All images are courtesy Edith Windsor, or in the public domain, thanks to Gettt.)