From time to time while growing up, I heard the saying “Never meet your heroes” — an adage based on the idea that meeting someone whom you held in great reverence could only end in disappointment. If there were ever someone to prove that saying wrong, it was Edie Windsor, who died Sept. 12 at the age of 88. She was my hero, and meeting her only exceeded my expectations of what a wise, kind and powerful woman she was.
History will remember Edith Windsor as the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that led to the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) being declared unconstitutional, but for those of us lucky enough to have worked alongside her, she was so much more.
I met Edie a few summers ago in Provincetown, Mass., an LGBTQ-friendly summer destination on Cape Cod. I had the honor of introducing my then 6-year-old daughter, Kate, to Edie, which in itself was powerful. My wife and I do our best to ensure that Kate is surrounded by strong female role models, and having the privilege of introducing her to one of the strongest was amazing. After I explained to Kate who this fierce advocate for equality was, Kate, barely in second grade, thanked her for what she had done for our family. And Edie, ever warm and generous, asked Kate if she could have a picture with her. Kate was so excited I thought she would float away. I am proud that when Kate is studying American history in school and learns about Edie Windsor, she’ll be able to say that she stood in her presence — and has the photo to prove it!
Edie was truly a force. An unabashed and proud lesbian who fought relentlessly for equality, she moved the country with the story of her and her wife, Thea Spyer. They met in the ’60s and got engaged, even though it would be almost half a century before marriage equality was the law of the land. In 1993, they were among the first couples to enter into a domestic partnership in New York.
In 2007, after a long battle with chronic illness, Spyer was given only a year to live. And since the state of New York had yet to pass marriage equality, the couple headed to Canada to finally have their decades-long love and commitment legally recognized. Spyer passed away in 2009, and since their marriage was not recognized as valid by the federal government under DOMA, Edie was required to pay over $350,000 in estate taxes. This was the basis for her successful lawsuit.
I often have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that this couple’s love and devotion stood the test of 40 years, but the nation did not recognize their commitment. Every time I think about this, it brings a tear to my eye. But I am heartened by the fact that because of Edie and her sacrifice, courage and tenacity, I and future generations don’t have to go through that painful battle.
As president and CEO of GLAAD, I know that all it takes is a single, humanizing story to change hearts and minds — it’s what GLAAD has done for over 30 years and it’s what Edie did. She brought a passionate, caring face to the struggles that so many faced. She was on every talk show and news network and in every newspaper. Her impact was massive. And in 2015, two years after DOMA was struck down, marriage equality passed in the U.S. It was a quantifiable difference: Per GLAAD’s annual survey measuring LGBTQ acceptance levels, almost two-thirds of Americans were comfortable with LGBTQ people, a higher number than ever before.
As a happily married lesbian, I have always found Edie’s story deeply resonant. My wife and I wanted the same thing — to marry the woman that we loved and have equal federal rights associated with that. Seeing a powerful lesbian woman demanding change and equality, being visible and relentless in her quest for what is right, has been one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever witnessed.
Something even more inspiring about Edie was that she didn’t stop. Even after marriage equality was won, she was everywhere — Pride parades, fundraisers, any sort of LGBTQ event. She was warm, and even though she had attained celebrity status in the community, she would still stop and take a picture with any passerby who wanted one. She won her battle, but she never stopped fighting the war.
Edie changed the heart of a nation and paved the way for a crucial LGBTQ equality benchmark. To say that she is a hero of mine is an understatement. Her life, her legacy and her strength have earned her an enduring spot in history and in the spirit of all LGBTQ people to come.
Sarah Kate Ellis is the president and CEO of GLAAD.