A conversation with Edie Windsor.

Author:Goldberg, Suzanne B.
Position:Marriage Equality and Reproductive Rights: Lessons Learned and the Road Ahead - Interview

Suzanne Goldberg [SG): It is not often that a law school gets to welcome a rock star. But in our world, Edie Windsor is a rock star. She is one of the major civil rights plaintiffs of our lifetime, whose lawsuit challenged--and triumphed over--the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Her victory in that suit has been vital to changing the landscape of marriage equality for all Americans. It is a tremendous honor, Edie, to have you here at Columbia Law School, and we welcome you.

Edie Windsor [EW]: Thank you so much.

SG: I will start off by asking the first question in our conversation this afternoon, and then Andrew Chesley and Madeline Gomez, who are both Columbia Law School students, will be following up with questions we have collected from students throughout the law school.

Edie, you have shown courage in every imaginable way: entering the computer science field as a young woman at a time where there were few women computer scientists--in fact, there were barely computer scientists; making the decision to get divorced and then coming to New York City to find other lesbians; and then coming out in so many ways. So when Time Magazine called you the "unlikely activist," it was not quite right because in so many ways, for so many years, you have been an activist, and you have been willing to challenge conventions. (1)

Let's start the conversation by you just talking about how it was as a young lesbian coming to New York and confronting this world, and then also about some of the activism that you've done along the way before you filed your lawsuit against the United States government.

EW: First of all, I came out late enough in life that I missed a lot of the pain of adolescence when you're gay and don't belong. I first had any kind of real relationship with a woman when I was a first-year student in college. And I didn't fall in love seriously with a woman until I was in my third year in college. Meanwhile I had become engaged to be married to a great guy, who was my big brother's best friend. He and I did get married, but when I saw two women together on a Saturday night, I was jealous. I had never been out with a girlfriend even on a Saturday night. I went out with boyfriends. So it was a whole different world. I told my husband, "Honey, you deserve more and I need something else."

But as I said, I missed most of the pain. I came to New York and there was nothing but bars, and 1 didn't even know how to find them. The first time I went to a bar, I really wasn't living in New York yet. I came in for a wedding, and then I got on the Fifth Avenue bus and I went downtown. I stopped a woman on the street who had on a trenchcoat. And I said, "Do you know a bar where only women go?" She sent me to Thompson Street, L's Bar. I sat down at the bar, and I ordered a drink; I had never paid for a drink myself in my life until then. And nobody talked to me. I was dressed to the T, and nobody said hello, nobody said anything. I sat there for two hours and then I left. Okay. I thought, this is not going to be easy.

My first real experience with being afraid of being gay came when I worked on the UNIVAC at NYU, which was mostly subsidized by the government and used primarily by the Atomic Energy Commission. (2) We had to have security clearances. I got a notice from the FBI inviting me to a meeting and saying I did not need a lawyer at this point. I got a book to get ready--and the book was the first time I saw the word gay. (3) It also had an appendix with the states and what was illegal in each state. It said that as far as women were concerned, that in New York, as long as you weren't imitating a man or pretending you were a man, you were safe. And in the bars, everybody said that so long as you were wearing two pieces of women's underwear, you would be safe if the police raided. So I didn't want to lie. If they asked me, I wanted to say, "I am gay." I'll probably lose my job, but I won't be arrested. And with that I went to the interview. I wore a crinoline. It was very chic at the time. And high heels. And they didn't discuss "gay" at all. They kept asking me questions about my big sister. Then they mentioned some man's name. I said, "I think I met him in my mother's house." Turned out, he was a big communist in the teacher's union and he had my sister's name on a list. I left relieved. But I called my sister from a payphone right after. I was still scared, and I said, "Who the hell is this guy?"

So that was my only really serious sense of, "It's dangerous to be gay."

The second part of the question has to do with what I was doing before the case.

When I was at IBM, I was very close with everybody I worked with. We had the new mainframes but we had no software. My group was developing the software. About a third of us were women. They were all smart; they were all math majors. Ultimately I got to be a senior programmer, and I had some of the smartest women in the country working for me. We were all very good friends. But I lied. All the years--for sixteen years--I lied about my life.

I left IBM because they were going to close the New York unit. (4) They gave one year's notice, and I gave one year's notice that I was going to leave, because I was not going to take a job anywhere else. I was really tired. And I wanted to be free to travel.

At that time, I got a call from somebody at the Center in the Village. (5) It was brand new. Well, first Thea and I had received a flyer asking us to come to a party. It used the name of a famous singer at the time who was not gay but who had lent her name, saying, "Just come, we want to talk about this new Center and we need to raise some money." We needed to raise $50,000 to show the City--I think it's called "earnest money"--that the community could afford to buy the building, a former schoolhouse. They were asking either for $1,000 as a gift, or a $1,000 loan without interest for a year. I had just left work, and so I said, I can't give them $1,000 but I could loan them $1,000. One year later, they returned the check to me, which said "Gay and Lesbian Center" on it. I took it in and I said, "I can't take this to my bank!" I was mortified. So I gave them the damn check. And the Center and I have been very related ever since.

The next thing is, somebody from the Center knew that I had left IBM, and called and said that the Center's mailing list is in trouble. I spent a couple months putting things right, and doing special versions thereof--and after that I probably computerized maybe ten different organizations' mailing lists, before I did anything else.

Altogether, I volunteered for probably twenty or twenty-five organizations, (6) with the result that SAGE, an organization that advocates for LGBT seniors, gave me a lifetime achievement award, months before we even announced that we were going to file a suit against the government. And it was a very big deal in my life.

Andrew Chesley [AC]: Edie, I want to ask you about your relationship with Thea. You had been together for forty-two years when you went to Toronto in 2007 to get married. Just the year...

To continue reading