The Heroic Love Story of Thea Spyer and Edith Windsor

DOMA must be struck down. Gay marriage must be recognized. One couple’s story shows us why the Supreme Court must act.

It’s kind of getting to be a big week in the fight for gay marriage in America. Yesterday came news a group of prominent Republicans (!!!!) are signing a legal brief urging the Supreme Court to recognize the right to marry. Tomorrow, dozens of American corporations—”including Apple, Alcoa, Facebook, eBay, Intel, and Morgan Stanley”—will do the same.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that the Supreme Court will recognize a right to gay marriage—even with substantial chunks of elite, establishment opinion lining up in support. But one message seems pretty clear: American society is ready, even if some opposition remains. Gay marriage will probably be widespread soon, no matter how the court rules.

That said, there’s still plenty of reason to hope that the Supreme Court rules in favor of gay marriage—or, at least, finds itself moved to strike down the noxious federal Defense of Marriage Act. The reason for that hope can be found in the briefs against DOMA, and in the lives of Edith Windsor and her late wife, Thea Spyer.

The two met in 1963. They got engaged in 1967. (To avoid attracting attention, Spyer proposed with a diamond brooch instead of the traditional ring.) In 1977, Spyer was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; Windsor would increasingly shoulder the responsibility for Spyer’s care over the next three decades. In 1993, the two were among the first New Yorkers to register for official recognition as domestic partners.

What we have here, you see, is a love story.

“Over the next fourteen years, Dr. Spyer’s disease wrought many changes in their daily lives, but one constant remained: Ms. Windsor and Dr. Spyer were determined to marry one another,” lawyers in the case wrote.

In 2007, the two were married in Toronto—at the ages of 77 and 75, respectively, after a lifetime of love and care. “They spent the last two years of Dr. Spyer’s life together as a married couple,” the lawyers wrote.

That should be a wonderfully happy ending to the story. Except for one thing: American law makes life more difficult for gay couples. Here are some of the obstacles that Windsor and Spyer faced after they were married, and upon Spyer’s death:

• Windsor was not allowed to merely inherit Spyer’s estate, as spouses do, but instead was required to pay the federal estate tax “as if they were total strangers to one another.” The cost? More than $363,000.

• Windsor was not allowed to receive the lump-sum death payment from Social Security that spouses automatically get, despite the fact her marriage was legally valid.

And there is more, for Windsor and Spyer and so many couples. Let the lawyers take it away:

Because DOMA affects more than 11,000 provisions of federal law, it denies married gay couples and surviving spouses access to protections in many other contexts as well. DOMA, for example, prevents married couples who are gay from filing joint federal tax returns. … It denies federal employees the ability to share their health insurance and other medical benefits with their spouses. … It impairs the right of same-sex spouses to obtain benefits relating to intellectual property. … It denies gay couples the protections of the Family and Medical Leave Act. … It deprives the surviving member of a military couple formal notification of his or her spouse’s death in the line of duty, and blocks surviving spouses from veterans benefits.

You get the picture. The rights you depend on as a married couple simply don’t exist for gays, even those who are legally married. Some anti-marriage conservatives claim that it’s not difficult for gay couples to make proper legal arrangements to share each other’s lives; those conservatives are simply wrong. It is past time for those obstacles to go away.

And I believe they will. The Supreme Court’s history tells us two things already: Americans have the right to be gay. And that marriage itself is a fundamental right. It’s not difficult to draw a conclusion, then, that gay marriage should also be a right. Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer have given the world a heroic love story. We honor that love, at long last, by recognizing their right to it.

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