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One Year After DOMA: A Conversation with Edie Windsor

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June 26, 2014

Edie Windsor, with the ACLU’s help, fought to have her marriage to her partner of 44 years respected by the federal government. And she won! It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since the Supreme Court struck down the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act.

Edie’s victory was a victory for us all – a victory for love and equality in a more perfect union. It inspired change all over the country from lawmakers, courts, and even public opinion. Thanks in part to Edie’s win, the movement for LGBT equality, once a distant dream, seems like a foregone conclusion.

On the occasion of the one year anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that took down DOMA, we sat down with Edie in her New York City apartment to talk about marriage, equality, the changes she’s seen in the LGBT community since the decision and her thoughts on another ACLU icon- Ed Snowden.

What does marriage mean to you, Edie? You and Thea were partners for so long before you two tied the knot in 2007. How does saying “I do” change even a fiercely committed relationship?

When Thea and I first contemplated marriage we said to ourselves after 40 years of living and loving together what could be different? It turns out marriage could be different. Marriage is a single word. It’s got a lot of magic. It represents the ultimate expression of love and commitment between two people. And everyone understands that in the whole world, which is why the name “civil union” doesn’t cut it. When our wedding announcement ran in the New York Times we heard from literally hundreds of people, including a guy who lived up the street from me and moved when I was 10. It was amazing what happened. And everyone I worked with at IBM wrote wonderful congratulations. And people called up and said “Edie, you lied to us!” [laughs], because I was in the closet the whole time I worked there.

What changes have you seen in the LGBT community over the last year?

The changes in the LGBT community are enormous. The very content of the Supreme Court’s decision in my case and its use of the word “respect” led to a resounding rise in self-esteem. It really did. And this self-esteem led to coming out. And the more people who came out, the more we saw each other. You start out with internalized homophobia, you believe everything you hear – “You’re a creep. You’re a queer.” I never felt like that but I knew, maybe not correctly, that if the people I worked with knew I was gay things would be different. I believe I wouldn’t have gotten a promotion. That I believe.

But after the decision you really saw a rise in self-esteem and self-respect?

I cannot tell you! I walk down the street and I’m like a rock star. Kids stop me and sometimes they say “Are you Edie?” I say “yes.” And they ask: “Can I hug you?” And they thank me, and I thank them for all the support. It’s endless. It’s amazing what has happened.

When I was talking to gay groups people used to ask me what I think could happen if we won. On the top of my list were teenagers falling in love for the first time because they know they have a future and possibilities. Suicide would no longer haunt them. But when I read through the whole list, it was clear: a win would be the beginning of the end of stigma. I mean 50 years ago I said “I don’t want to be identified with those queens,” and then those queens turned over a police car at Stonewall and they changed my life. That was the beginning of my sense of community.

The only bad thing that has happened is with teenagers and kids still living at home and who have the courage to come out. A lot of them get thrown out and are on the streets. I think it’s one of the worst problems that we face.

I sense from you that you’re incredibly hopeful that an overwhelming majority of people, even many conservatives, are going to come around and support marriage equality?

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio was a staunch guy against marriage equality, and then he learned his son was gay and he changed his position. And that’s what will happen. That’s a big part of the incredible amount of people who are coming out. And I believe that’s where it’s at. Now somebody says “Oh my god my sister is gay,” whereas before they didn’t know what we look like. I remember talking to my sister about poets and writers who were gay, and she was like “No they’re not. Gays can’t do that.”

We start to come out and then they know what we look like. We don’t have horns, and we live and love like they do.

You fought against legal discrimination and you won. Other than marriage equality, what other forms of discrimination need to be fought?

Almost every form. I was recently going to speak at the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund and they did a study of discrimination against transgender people and it’s astounding and so terrible and widespread. The study looked at white trans people and black trans people and the amount of discrimination is just unbelievable. I spoke to them in Baltimore and the Maryland governor had just declared that discrimination against transgender people was also against the law. It’s happening: They were the 18th state which did that. It’s an incredibly encouraging sign of the times.

How important was President Obama’s change of heart on marriage equality to the LGBT movement?

Extraordinarily important. I thought his use of the bully pulpit had been enormously successful. There was this total change in the whole country in certain areas. I was on a cruise with 1,900 lesbians and they were from every state and you would get people telling me that the ministers from some little town had changed their position because of what the president had said. It had an enormous effect. It was amazing. It’s like the pope saying, “Who am I to judge.” I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of Catholic mothers said, “The Pope said it’s ok, so okay.”

Edie, you made a living at IBM as a software engineer. What do you think about the Edward Snowden’s disclosures and the NSA stuff?

I think he’s an earnest whistleblower.

Edie, do you consider yourself a civil libertarian?

I don’t really know what that means, but I believe in the Constitution. I believe that Americans are fair and they like justice. I believe in the end things work their way through to justice

A big thank you to Edie for agreeing to do this interview. She would like to give a shout out and her gratitude to her legal team including: James Esseks from the ACLU, Roberta Kaplan, litigation partner at Paul, Weiss, et al, Pamela Karlan of the Stanford Law School Supreme Court Litigation Clinic and Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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