In the 1950s, a stunningly-attractive upper middle-class married woman living in the suburbs of a large American city on the East Coast decided one day that she had to stop hiding the fact that she was a lesbian. Summoning up a degree of courage that seems almost unimaginable today, she effectively “came out” to her husband at a time when there was no such thing as “coming out” since almost all gay people lived in the closet and being gay was a crime in most states.
She told her husband that he “deserved better” — he deserved to be truly loved in the way a husband should be loved by his wife. This woman got a divorce, packed up her belongings, and moved to New York City like so many others (including myself three decades later) “in order to be gay.”
While this may sound like a description of the plot in Todd Haynes’ wonderful new film “Carol” (for which Cate Blanchett justly earned her seventh Academy award nomination and Rooney Mara earned her second), it is actually a true story from the life of my client, Edie Windsor, whose case challenging the Defense of Marriage Act (or DOMA) paved the way for the equal right of gay people to marry in all 50 states.
When I stood up at the Supreme Court to argue Edie’s case on March 27, 2013, the justices asked me to explain how and why mainstream America was so much more accepting of gay men and lesbians than it had been only several years before. Chief Justice John Roberts suggested that the “sea change” in attitudes toward gay people had to do with the political power of the LGBT movement, including his observation that “politicians were falling over themselves” to support our side of the case.
But, as I explained to the justices, what has changed so dramatically since the 1950s when Windsor — or her fictional counterpart Carol — moved to Manhattan is not the legal arguments advanced by lawyers, the discourse engaged in by politicians or even the words of the United States Constitution. Instead, it is the newfound “moral understanding” of many Americans that gay people are no different than anyone else.
Winning landmark civil rights cases like United States v. Windsor is not just about changing the minds of judges, jurors, politicians or voters. It’s also about touching their hearts. And that’s what happens when people see the stories of LGBT people reflected on their television screens and in movie theaters.
Now 86 years old, Windsor was engaged to her late spouse, Thea Spyer, in 1967, two years before the Stonewall riots that gave birth to the modern gay rights movement. When Spyer passed away from heart disease after a long battle with multiple sclerosis, Windsor fought back when their marriage was denied recognition. While we have not all lived through this long arc of 20th and 21st century LGBT history, we can better understand it because of films like “The Imitation Game,” which showed the genius of mathematician Alan Turing, who built the code-breaking machine that helped the Allies win World War II; “Milk,” which gave life to the story of Harvey Milk, the openly gay civil rights hero who helped inspire today’s successes; or “Freeheld,” in which a lesbian couple fought for the recognition of their relationship in light of a terrible diagnosis. After all, when Ellen DeGeneres initially came out on her television sitcom in 1997, her career was nearly destroyed; but today, almost 20 years later, she is a beloved television host, host of the Academy Awards show and gay rights icon.
Stories like these are important — and we need to see more of them — not only because they help LGBT kids and teens better understand their history and community, but because telling our stories helps all Americans understand that their gay friends, neighbors or family members want exactly the same thing as everyone else; to have, as Justice Anthony Kennedy put it, “the same status and dignity.”
In 2013, people rallied around Windsor’s case not only because of an abstract desire for justice or equality, but because of her story, a story of love and heroism that was recognized and understood by a majority of the United States Supreme Court.
But there are so many more of these stories to tell. I can only hope that more directors, producers and actors will be able to bring them to both small and large screens so that they get the recognition and audience they so richly deserve.
Roberta Kaplan, a litigation partner at Paul, Weiss LLP, represented Edie Windsor in her constitutional challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act and argued the case before the United States Supreme Court. She is the author of “Then Comes Marriage; United States v. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA” (WW Norton 2015).