NEW YORK —
Edie Windsor cried with joy Wednesday when she learned the Supreme Court used her lawsuit to strike down a key element of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman, but the former IBM executive who recently turned 84 was all smiles two hours later at a news conference.
“Wow. I’m honored. I’m humbled. I’m overjoyed to be here today,” said Windsor, a Manhattan resident whose given name is Edith, her words sometimes barely audible above the snapping cameras.
Windsor said she hoped the decision would bring about “the beginning of the end of stigma, of lying about who we are.”
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She recalled that she “lied all the time” about who she was during the 15 years she worked at IBM. In thinking back on those years, she said: “Some of it is almost incredible to me.”
Minutes earlier, one her lawyers, Roberta Kaplan, had pointed out her client’s size — 5 feet tall and 100 pounds — as she described the huge impact her case had made in the nation’s legal fabric, saying Windsor had made it so that gay and lesbian couples could participate fully in society “after so many dark decades of living their lives hidden in the closet.”
Windsor said she was not sure how the court would rule but was confident of the common sense of her lawyers’ arguments. “Our arguments were sound and everyone else’s were insane,” she said.
She also explained the genesis of the lawsuit she brought in federal court in Manhattan four years ago, saying she was “overwhelmed with the sense of injustice and unfairness” she felt when she learned that the death of her spouse, Thea Clara Spyer, meant she owed the estate taxes because she was not married to a man. She and Spyer had been married barely two years earlier in Canada, though she first met Spyer in 1963 and had lived with her for 40 years before they were married.
In striking down the DOMA provision, the court declared that gay couples married in states where it is legal must receive the same federal health, tax, Social Security and other benefits that heterosexual couples receive. And that means the U.S. Treasury owes Windsor $363,053. Plus interest.
The decision also has some surprising impacts for the personal finances of thousands of gay couples and the federal budget.
The last time the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) looked at the question was nearly a decade ago, but in 2004, the CBO found that federal recognition of gay marriages would increase tax receipts by 0.1 percent, amid offsetting forces: More couples would face the “marriage penalty” in which two income-earning people who marry face a higher tax bill than they would have faced separately. But there are also people like Windsor, who will face lower estate-tax bills because those taxes are not charged for money or assets passed to a spouse.
On the spending side, one of the biggest impacts is on Social Security. As the 2004 CBO report notes: “As a general rule, married people fare better under Social Security than single people do, and married couples with one earner fare better than two-earner couples do.”
At the simplest level, more married couples mean a more generous Social Security system, due to survivor benefits that allow a widow or widower to continue receiving benefits after a spouse dies. The CBO estimated the increased federal spending due to same-sex marriage at $200 million a year from 2010 to 2014, a pittance in the context of the federal budget.
At a more human level, gay couples have spent decades having to find workarounds to simulate some of the tax advantages that straight couples take for granted, such as owning investments through limited partnerships or writing legally enforceable contracts before buying a home together.
Finances, of course, were not what Windsor was thinking about Wednesday.
She wore the simple circular diamond brooch that Spyer had given her in 1967 to symbolize and formalize their relationship. Windsor has worn it at key moments during the court fight, and Wednesday was one of those moments. Repeatedly, Windsor referenced Spyer.
“To all of the gay people and their supporters who have cheered me along: Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she said, adding: “I’m sure Thea is thanking you, too.”
“Children born today will grow up in a world without DOMA,” she said at another point. “If I had to survive Thea, what a glorious way to do it.”
Material from The Washington Post is included in this report.