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Challenging DOMA for Edie and Thea

James Esseks,
Director, LGBTQ & HIV Project,
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November 9, 2010

Today we filed a constitutional challenge to the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in federal court in New York City. It follows on the heels of the DOMA challenge that Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders won last summer, and highlights a particular harm that DOMA inflicts, this time on an extraordinary lesbian couple who shared a life together for 44 years.

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Edie Windsor met Thea Spyer in a restaurant in Greenwich Village in 1963. By 1967, long before marriage for same-sex couples was anything more than a pipe dream, Thea proposed to Edie. Thea couldn't give her an engagement ring, because Edie wouldn't have been able to explain it to her colleagues at IBM, so she gave her a diamond brooch instead. They were inseparable for the next 40 years.

In 1977, Thea was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and they both worked, over the next 30 years, to accommodate Thea's progressive paralysis. She first used a cane, then two crutches, then a manual wheelchair, and finally a motorized one that she could operate with her one good hand.

In 2007, with Thea's health failing, the couple married in Canada, and enjoyed married life for the next two years, until Thea died at age 77.

Thanks to an ACLU lawsuit, New York State recognizes marriages of same-sex couples validly entered into in other states, so New York considered Edie and Thea to be a lawfully married couple. But because of DOMA, the federal government didn't, and taxed Edie's inheritance from Thea as though they were strangers. Under federal tax law, a spouse who dies can leave her estate, including the family home, to her spouse without incurring taxes — but Edie had to sell off some of their assets in order to pay the hefty federal estate tax bill.

After decades together, and finally realizing their dream of getting married, it was devastating to Edie for the federal government to disrespect their marriage and pretend that they were not family.

Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders also filed a new DOMA challenge today, this time in Connecticut, and we worked together to push the stories out to the press. So with Edie's case (which we brought with lots of help from the Paul Weiss law firm) and GLAD's two DOMA challenges, we've now highlighted for the country a wide range of contexts in which DOMA treats married same-sex couples unfairly and introduced mainstream America to the stories of some of the committed couples who are harmed by it.

Many people, regardless of what their own relationships are actually like, can see in Edie and Thea's relationship their own ideal of what marriage looks like. And Edie and Thea's story should help strike down DOMA in court.

Follow Edie's case and all the ACLU's work on LGBT rights. Follow the ACLU LGBT Project's Facebook page, Get Busy, Get Equal.

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