News & Opinion

Edie Windsor: 1929-2017

Hillary Clinton’s powerful tribute to Edie Windsor was only one part of her amazing, moving funeral

The Daily Beast

September 15, 2017

Edie Windsor, the “godmother of gay marriage,” had two mantras.

“The first was ‘Don’t postpone joy.’ The second was ‘Keep it hot,’” recalled Roberta “Robbie” Kaplan, the lawyer who represented Windsor in her successful fight to overturn the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act at the Supreme Court in 2013.

As the congregation at Windsor’s funeral at Temple Emanu-El on New York’s Upper East Side laughed, Kaplan said she was alright with Windsor publicly proclaiming the first as they fought the case; less so, the second, even if Windsor was often asked how she and her wife of 44 years Thea Spyer—after whose death in 2009 Windsor was spurred to fight the case—kept it hot.

Kaplan said she didn’t want the Supreme Court justices “thinking about Edie’s sex life, no matter how hot it was. I asked Edie not to talk publicly about sex. She made it clear she did not agree with my strategy. I had to promise that all bets were off the minute the case was over.”

Kaplan paused. “We won the Windsor case at 10:03 in the morning of the 26th of June, 2013. Edie was talking about sex before noon.”

The congregation roared with laughter.

After the case, Kaplan said, Justice Sonia Sotomayor told Edie’s nephew Lewis Freeman that Kaplan’s no-sex strategy had been wise. Windsor still disagreed. “She had a will of steel,” Kaplan said. “I don’t think she would have changed her mind if all eight other justices thought it was a wise idea.”

‘She had a continuous smile’

Every true icon has their own signifier, and there—at the front of Temple Emanu-El on Friday afternoon—propped up for all attendees to see was one of Windsor’s straw hats with a hot pink ribbon draped around it. You will have seen her wearing it, or components of it, at rallies, on the steps of the Supreme Court, and in Pride parades.

This public funeral for Windsor, who died on Tuesday at age 88, was attended by her surviving wife Judith Kasen-Windsor, family, friends, grand poobahs including Hillary Clinton and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Kaplan too. Windsor’s victory at the Supreme Court had paved the way for marriage equality nationwide. Her legal fight had begun because New York state did not recognize the validity of Windsor’s 2007 Canadian marriage to Spyer, and she had to pay $363,053 in federal estate taxes. If, as Windsor would say, Thea had been Theo (i.e. a husband, and theirs a heterosexual marriage), she would not have had to pay anything.

Windsor was beloved by the LGBT community. She never stopped fighting. It was Windsor, Clinton said in her stirring, deeply felt oration, who “helped to changed hearts and minds, including mine,” about same-sex marriage.

Windsor’s funeral was an event full of tears, laughter, memories, and a resounding evaluation and celebration of Windsor and an LGBT legacy that will hopefully be passed down for future generations.

It was an inspirational service: rousing, extremely moving, and laugh-out-loud funny. Tissues were passed between quietly weeping attendees.

It reminded this reporter of attending Joan Rivers’ funeral in the same venue, and with similar complementary weather systems of joy and sadness coming from the speeches.

Catharine Hough, a friend of Windsor’s, told the Daily Beast she was there “to celebrate Edie. I can’t quite fathom not being able to see her again. She was an extraordinary person and woman and had the biggest heart of all. What she did was huge for the LGBT community.”

Hough was sure she was overseeing the events of the day, smiling, “and probably dancing with Thea because she loved to dance.”

Janice Wilde, a documentary filmmaker, recalled that when she marched with Windsor at the Dyke March, “it would almost be a dance down 5th Avenue. People were hanging off lampposts to get a better view of her. She was in her 80s. How many people do you know who dance down 5th Avenue–blocks and blocks and blocks–in their 80s?

“She had a continuous smile. Like the Dalai Lama, her smile was practice; to love people and send a message of love, acceptance and loving each other. She wasn’t in your face. She was ‘come with me, join me, be with me.’”

Windsor, noted Wilde, was no comic caricature or stereotype; she had lived through a tumultuous period of LGBT history; she had made history happen herself.

“To go from underground bars in the Village to getting a call from the President of the United States. That’s the beauty of our country and New York City,” said Wilde.

She looked around Temple Emanu-El, and chuckled softly. “I have never seen so many lesbians all together in one room.”


‘My love, you left us too early’

In her moving tribute, Judith Kasen-Windsor, Windsor’s surviving wife (they married last year), paid emotional tribute to “a remarkable woman, technology pioneer and civil rights trailblazer… To me she was simply my love. I knew the moment I set eyes on her years ago she was the woman for me.”

Her voice breaking, Kasen-Windsor said, “My love, you left us too early. We still had much to do for us and for the community you loved so much, and which in turn showed how much it loved you.”

Kasen-Windsor vowed to continue Windsor’s work. “Edie, the moment you left me, my heart was split in two,” she said, “one side holding our memories, the other side holding your love. But a piece of me was taken with you.”

Sharon Kleinbaum, senior rabbi of LGBT synagogue Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, wondered aloud how many people had selfies taken with Windsor, who had been generous in lending her support to LGBT organizations. “She knew it took all of us to change the world. She loved us as we loved her. We felt her attention on us individually. We will desperately miss her.”

Sunnie Baron Freeman, Windsor’s cousin, said that Windsor had only been 14 months older than her, but was her protector, and called her “Baby.” As little girls they had built sandcastles and argued about the design, they had performed plays at home in front of a large bay window which had made the perfect stage.

“Two days before she died, she called and she promised to call me once a week and ended it with, ‘OK baby.’ I will miss that expression. She was my big cousin. I’ll miss you, Edie.”

Freeman’s son Lewis recalled growing up in the 1960s and 70s and it not being at all unusual that Edie and Thea lived together. “They were our cool cousins living on Fifth Avenue in New York City.”

He talked about loving the special summer weeks—“our week,” Edie called them–in Southampton, Long Island. This summer it hadn’t been as magical not swimming with her or lying staring at the stars, or her showing him the first PC ever delivered to New York City (yes, Windsor had taken delivery of it).

The iconic photo of Windsor, arms outstretched on the steps of the Supreme Court following her victory, was actually in preparation for a hug with Lewis and his two children, he said.

“She was full of love and grace and joy and clarity and sexiness and fortitude and bravery and fun and passion and confidence and resilience and love,” he said. “She was a fierce advocate for justice, fairness, equity, equality, respect, and pride. For Edie, family wasn’t limited by blood relation. You are all her family. You are all my family.”

After a performance of ‘Adagio For Strings’ by members of the Lesbian and Gay Big Apple Corps band and a moving reading of ‘I Rise’ by Marjorie Sherwin and Rose Walton, two friends of Windsor’s, another friend, Karen Sauvigne, recalled: “To her dying day she was brilliant. She was beautiful to her dying day. She was light-hearted and witty to her dying day.”

Sauvigne recalled that Windsor loved to dance. She had first met Windsor and Spyer on a dancefloor; she in her 30s and they in their 50s.

“They were strikingly beautiful. Thea was already in a wheelchair (she was diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis in 1977), but when the music played she was her girl with Thea leading and twirling Edie around, making moves to the music, kicking up the rug. They were intoxicating, exciting. Edie always lived life to the fullest.”

Windsor, said Sauvigne, had earned a masters degree in maths from NYU in the 1950s, and became a computer software programmer. She went to IBM where she spent most of her career—a pioneer in that field, achieving the highest technical ranking which was rare for a woman.

Her LGBT activism was also long-standing (many, many years before the DOMA fight), and she helped computerize the work systems at New York’s LGBTQ Center.

“Edie was a lover and a flirt,” Sauvigne said to laughter. “Even during her last weeks she was flirting with doctors, nurses, the cleaning staff. She insisted on lipstick. She even cajoled a week before she died a nurse to do her nails, so that she died with a brand new manicure.”

Windsor’s four great loves, said Sauvigne, were Spyer; the LGBT community itself, who she loved and was loved back so heartily by; Judith Kasen; and her friends. “Edie’s love was vast and boundless,” said Sauvigne.


‘She helped to change hearts and minds, including mine’

Hillary Clinton was welcomed with a standing ovation, and paid tribute to Windsor’s “positive lasting influence on our country and the world.” She was honored to be there, she added.

Noting that among the outpouring of tributes to Windsor, one had come from a fact-checker who had worked on a profile of her, Clinton said,

“And I have to tell you, I have a really high regard for fact-checkers,” she said to laughter. “I may turn to the rabbis to ask for some smidgeon of forgiveness for how I feel about those who dwell in alternate realities.”

Windsor had grown up in a time when it was expected she would settle down with a husband. Instead, by 23, she was divorced and living on her own in Manhattan. She was a trailblazer as a female computer programmer, Clinton said.

“Edie and Thea were inseparable. Before Stonewall, before Pride parades, before two women could marry anywhere in the world, their devotion to each other was its own quiet, revolutionary act.”

When Windsor won her case at the Supreme Court, much of America cheered, realizing a wrong had been righted, Clinton said. Her campaigning continued. “She helped to changed hearts and minds including mine, and we are forever grateful for that,” Clinton said.

This was a glancing reference to a complex slice of political history. It was Bill Clinton who as President had signed DOMA into law in 1996; and Clinton’s own record on supporting marriage equality—which she only came out in full support of in 2013—was memorably challenged by NPR’s Terry Gross in 2014.

Clinton’s LGBT advocacy since then has been impressive, and at Windsor’s service she said that marriage equality was “only a beginning. Until everyone is able to live free from discrimination and hate our work is far from finished.”

Windsor, she said, reminded her of Helena’s description of Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “And though she be but little, she is fierce.”

“She refused to give up on the promise of America,” Clinton said of Windsor. “There was not a cynical, defeatist bone in her body. That’s especially important for us to remember right now… In this moment when so much hard-fought progress is hanging in the balance it is up to all of us to pick up where she left off. We really owe it to her, to ensure that gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights now and forever. It’s easy to go weary fighting these fights, but remember Edie Windsor who took on and won against the U.S. Government. She pushed us all to be better, to stand taller, to dream bigger.”

Quoting poet Mary Oliver, Clinton said: “There is nothing more pathetic than caution, when headlong might save a life, even, possibly, your own.” Windsor gad done it all headlong, from falling in love twice to inspiring others to come out, march in their first Pride parade, and marry the loves of their lives, not to mention the revolution in science, math, technology and engineering she was at the heart of.

“So thank you Edie, thank you for being a beacon of hope; for proving that love is more powerful than hate; for filling us with a sense of possibility and promise.”

Oliver’s question of what we plan to do with our “wild and precious” lives is one we can answer while being inspired by Windsor’s own, said Clinton.

“Let us make her proud of how we answer that question for ourselves,” Clinton concluded. “Thank you, Edie.”

The congregation erupted in applause, and another standing ovation.

“As Edie would say to you, ‘Madam Secretary, fight on,’” Rabbi Kleinbaum said to even louder applause and whooping.


‘Thank you for being our sage’

Windsor had served on the board of SAGE (Advocacy and Services For LGBT Elders), and its Chief Executive Officer Michael Adams recalled how involved she was and committed, for so many years, to that work. She had taught and inspired him so much, he said.

She was a guiding light for the group Old Queers Acting Up, he added. “She was an 83-year-old fierce and proud lesbian that bought the Supreme Court to its knees in support of our love, our humanity.”

Her falling in love with Judith Kasen should remind us that passion can sizzle to life at any age, Adams said. Laughing, he added Windsor could also be stern. After full marriage equality was won in 2015, and the speeches outside the Stonewall Inn were going on a bit too long, she said sharply she wanted to be on that stage pronto to speak, or she was going home.

“Thank you for leading us, thank you for mothering us, thank you for thank you for loving us, thank you for being our sage, thank you for your love affair with our community,” Adams said.

When Kaplan rose to spoke next, a woman near me sighed, “Yeah baby,” in wonderment.

Kaplan related how ill Windsor was when they took the DOMA case on in 2009. She had had a series of heart attacks, and she would canvass the then-District Court judge to move the case quickly along because of Windsor’s health. Kaplan’s colleague called these entreaties the “Edie’s got the sniffles” letters.

Despite that, Kaplan never thought Windsor would die. “Certain people have an inner light that’s stronger and shines brighter than the rest of us. It is impossible now to imagine that light ever dimming.”

So many people spoke about Windsor’s warmth, her ability to make you, the person opposite, feel so special. Wherever she went, she was thanked, people wanted to touch and be around her. She was always smiling, always welcoming, always moving, and keen to get on with things.

Kaplan recalled their first press conference together, and Windsor, “this four foot eleven, 95 pound Jewish lady, with perfectly manicured nails and perfectly bobbed hair, who explained with such clarity why her rights and all our rights should not be denied.”

Windsor became part of Kaplan’s family, devoted to (with devotion returned) to Jacob, her now 11-year-old son. He is dyslexic, aand Windsor would read the Captain Underpants series of books to him for hours.

“Edie did not see her work as finished and neither should we,” Kaplan said. “The best way to honor Edie’s memory is to resist any undoing of the progress we have made.”


Saying farewell

It was Rosanne Leipzig, M.D., Ph.D. and Nathan E. Goldstein, M.D. who delivered the closing Kaddish. Before so, they told us they were part of Windsor’s medical team (Leipzig was also a friend and health advisor), which was an “incredible honor,” said Goldstein.

Leipzig said we should remember Windsor “as a stunning example of how to age well, with wisdom, dignity, and grace, meeting age head on, adapting to circumstances while remaining vitally engaged with life–always learning, growing, and teaching by word and example.”

Leipzig paused, and turned to Kaplan. “Robbie, I have to tell you Edie next month was supposed to give a talk to our medical students on love and sex in your 80s.”

The congregation laughed and whooped.

In her final weeks, Windsor, said Leipzig, “knew what she wanted and she knew what she didn’t want. She told us she was OK with dying. She had had a wonderful life. Birth is a beginning and death a destination, but life is a journey: a going, a growing from stage to stage, from childhood to maturity, and youth to old age. Edie’s life was a truly remarkable journey.”

Then Rabbi Kleinbaum asked us to stand “for the gay national anthem.”

Cantor Steven Zeidenberg led the congregation in a group-sung rendition of ‘Over The Rainbow.’ Everybody linked arms around their neighbor’s backs, and the congregation swayed together as it sang the song made famous by that other honorary gay godmother Judy Garland, sounding note and word-perfect, voices rising and falling: “If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, Why oh why can’t I?”

It’s the eternal question, and one Edie Windsor showed was best addressed with arms joyously outstretched, smile wide, that will of steel and steadfast determination unwavering.

And don’t forget the hat.