Willy has taken on a lot of identities over the years. His only problem now is that he is still in the closet. Specifically, he is in Edie Windsor’s closet and that is because she put him there.
Willy began life as a doll, clutched in the hands of a young girl fleeing the coming Nazi invasion of The Netherlands during World War II.
Then he became a man, an imaginary one, created by Windsor to hide her lesbian relationship with Willy’s owner, Thea Spyer.
“When I met and fell in love with Thea, I pretended there was a man named Willy in my life,” recalled Windsor during a speech she made to a rapt audience at last month’s American Military Partners Association gala dinner. Windsor, pretended, she said, because while working at IBM in New York shortly after getting her masters in mathematics, “I lied about my life.”
Later, she said, once acceptance of gays and lesbians was more widespread, some of her former colleagues asked her why she never came to weekend company outings like wine tastings? “And my answer was ‘because I was queer,’” said Windsor matter-of-factly.
Now, “my Thea is gone but Willy still lives in my closet,” Windsor continued, to ironic laughter. Windsor doesn’t need Willy anymore and she is long out of the closet. And a big reason for all of this is Windsor herself.
The landmark United States v. Windsor Supreme Court decision, on June 26, 2013, found section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional. Windsor had sought to claim the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses after inheriting the late Spyer’s estate after her death in 2009 — the two had been legally married in Canada. Overturning section 3 of DOMA effectively recognized her claim, their marriage and gave full federal recognition to legally married gay and lesbian couples everywhere.
That momentous change was a long way from the early days when Windsor recalled going to a government hearing that required security clearance. She wasn’t quite sure what being found out as lesbian might do for her career but she had a pretty good idea.
“I quickly looked up in a book regarding the laws of gay and lesbian people in the USA,” she said. “My state, New York state, said the only thing illegal was to imitate a man.” To ensure no such accusation she went to the hearing “ wearing crinolines and spiked heels.”
After Windsor, as her landmark case is forever known, “what was still missing?” Windsor asked. One was the absence of marriage equality in every state, she observed. “The other thing still lacking was the recognition that marriage is a constitutional right.”
Two years later, in deciding for the plaintiffs in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court took care of both.
Today Windsor has one golden rule. “Note that I do not use the term ‘same sex marriage.’ It is marriage,” she said. “We don’t have a separate kind of marriage in this country. To my knowledge, no country does. My personal request — never use the expression. And when possible, object to its use.”
After all, using the phrase can prove fatal. “Ted Cruz recently used it in a number of talks about getting rid of us,” said Windsor. “Fortunately, we got rid of him.”