81-Year-Old Woman Sues Feds for Not Recognizing Her Gay Marriage

By Tara Kyle on November 9, 2010 2:07pm | Updated on November 10, 2010 6:09am

By Tara Kyle

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

GREENWICH VILLAGE — Eighty-one-year old Edith "Edie" Windsor spent half her life living in Greenwich Village with her partner, whom she married three years ago. Now, she's suing the federal government for failing to recognize her union with the woman she nursed through a slow death.

Windsor met Dutch-born Thea Spyer in 1963 at the Village's Portofino restaurant. The pair got engaged in 1967 and finally married in Canada in 2007, just two years before Spyer died due to complications of a heart condition and 30-year battle with multiple sclerosis.

Windsor filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court Wednesday because she had to pay more than $350,000 in federal taxes on Spyer's estate — fees that heterosexual widows are generally exempt from. When Windsor asked for a refund in early 2010, the IRS denied her claim on the basis of the Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to deny marriage benefits to same-sex couples.

"This illustrates just how harmful and just how unfair it is that the federal government pretends that married people are strangers," James Esseks, an ACLU attorney who represents Windsor, said at a press conference Tuesday at the LGBT Center.

The suit challenges DOMA's constitutionality on the grounds that it unjustly overrides New York State's recognition of marriages performed in other jurisdictions and violates the US Constitution's equal protection guarantee. It also seeks a refund on the estate taxes.

While Windsor said she can't imagine moving out of the Village apartment she and Spyer shared "unless it's to a nursing home," financial hardships may force her to sell the couple's summer house on Long Island.

"This case is extremely important to me," Windsor said Tuesday, while still wearing the diamond engagement broach Spyer gave her in 1967. The two did not wear rings in order to avoid workplace discrimination. Windsor is a retired computer systems programmer and Spyer was a clinical psychologist. "I had to spend countless hours defending our relationship to the federal government."

"It is not often that a lawyer gets a chance to represent her hero," said attorney Roberta Kaplan (right, of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP)
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DNAinfo/Tara Kyle

While Windsor and Spyer dreamed of marrying in New York State, Spyer's 2002 heart attack convinced them they couldn't risk the wait.

The couple's 2007 wedding and final years together, when Windsor fed and dressed her wife, as well as creating special computer programs that allowed her to continue to work, are chronicled in the documentary "Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement."

"Thea was beautiful, vibrant and incredibly smart," Windsor said. "We had a magnetic connection to each other."

Also on Tuesday, attorneys for the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) filed a similar lawsuit in federal court in Hartford, Conn. That suit is being filed by five married couples and one widower from several states, each claiming that DOMA denied them significant benefits.

Additionally, the Human Rights Campaign advocacy group on Tuesday released a new video in its "New Yorkers for Marriage Equality" campaign, starring Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick.

"All people, whether they're gay or straight, want to get married for the same reasons," Windsor said. "To make a lifetime commitment the person they love."

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