How LGBT icon Edie Windsor changed America

Pride of America: Windsor was a computer programmer at IBM before becoming an activist. © Getty

Is history made by sudden changes, or “countless small acts of persistence”? For Barack Obama, it is the latter — and Edith “Edie” Windsor, who died on Tuesday, was the perfect example.

It was 1967, the summer of love, and Edie Windsor was driving to the Hamptons with her partner, Thea Spyer.

“What would you do if we were to become engaged?” asked Spyer.

Windsor was unsure. “I couldn’t wear a ring,” she said, worried that people would find out she was a lesbian.

When they arrived in the Hamptons, Spyer proposed anyway. Windsor said yes.

The couple waited 40 years before getting married in Canada in 2007. Two years later, Spyer died. At the time, America’s Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) defined marriage as between a man and a woman. This meant that Windsor did not get the same benefits as straight widows, and she owed over $500,000 in taxes as a result.

She thought this was unfair, and so she sued the US government. The case ended in the Supreme Court, and in 2013, DOMA was declared unconstitutional. It paved the way for same-sex marriage to become legal across the entire country in 2015.

On Tuesday, Windsor died aged 88.

“America’s long journey towards equality has been guided by countless small acts of persistence,” wrote former president Barack Obama on Facebook. “Few were as small in stature as Edie Windsor – and few made as big a difference to America.”

Winds of change

“Is that really true?” ask some. Windsor was a wealthy woman who sued the government over a tax issue. It is an exaggeration to say that she made as big a difference to America as people like its founders or presidents. It is these powerful people who shape the world we live in.

“Obama is right,” say others. It is ordinary people who help to change minds and set the stage for more powerful people to finish the job. Think of Rosa Parks, the rioters at Stonewall, or millions of less famous campaigners. They have made big changes with small acts. Windsor should inspire us to join them.

You Decide

  1. Is the world changed more by lots of small actions, or a few big ones?

Activities

  1. In a sentence and without consulting a dictionary, explain what you think makes someone an “icon”.

Some People Say...

“We are the change that we seek.”

Barack Obama

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
When Spyer died in 2009, the state of New York recognised that Windsor was her wife and sole heir. However, the national government did not recognise the marriage, because of DOMA. That meant she did not get the tax benefits of straight couples.
What do we not know?
How far Windsor’s own personal story convinced the supreme court to strike down DOMA for everyone.

Word Watch

Summer of love
The nickname given to the optimistic summer of 1967.
Defence of Marriage Act
This was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996. It meant that states did not have to recognise same-sex marriage.
Supreme court
The highest court in the USA, with the power to make final decisions on the constitution.
Rosa Parks
An early civil rights activist who sparked a bus boycott 1955.
Stonewall
The Stonewall Inn is a gay bar in New York City. In 1969, it was the site of spontaneous riots against violent police, sparking the LGBT rights movement.

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