At Temple, an alumna once closeted gets a hero's welcome back

Edith Windsor's honors on her return to Temple included an award from the university's alumni association and Mayor Nutter's proclamation of "Edie Windsor Day" in Philadelphia.
Edith Windsor's honors on her return to Temple included an award from the university's alumni association and Mayor Nutter's proclamation of "Edie Windsor Day" in Philadelphia. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 28, 2014

As a closeted Temple University student in 1950, Edith Windsor could not have imagined the reception she would receive at her alma mater in 2014: an award for her activism; a standing ovation from a large, adoring crowd; a presentation from the mayor.

Windsor, now 84, won the lawsuit that toppled the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 2013 and has been called the matriarch of the gay-rights movement.

Sharp, stylish, trim, and funny, Windsor enjoyed every moment of her tribute at the university, including Mayor Nutter handing her a miniature, working Liberty Bell and proclaiming Saturday "Edie Windsor Day" in Philadelphia.

"I love it," Windsor said in an interview. "It feels wonderful."

After graduation from Temple, and a brief marriage to a man, the Philadelphia native left for New York where she got a job as a secretary and asked a friend to tell her "where the lesbians go."

She eventually earned a graduate degree at NYU, became a computer programmer for IBM and, in 1963, met Thea Spyer, a clinical psychologist. They clicked quickly; the first night they met, Windsor danced a hole through her stockings.

During a drive together in 1967, Spyer asked Windsor what would happen if she were to wear an engagement ring at work. Windsor said it wouldn't work - people would ask "who he is," she recalled.

"When we got out of the car, she got down on her knees and said, 'Edie Windsor, will you marry me?,'" Windsor said. Spyer gave her a pin with a circle of diamonds that she still wears.

Theirs was a life of friends and family and activism and a deep, abiding love. Even as Spyer's multiple sclerosis worsened and she became more disabled, "we kept life full of joy," Windsor said.

They registered as domestic partners in New York the first day it was allowed, and, as Spyer's health failed, married in Toronto in 2007.

Even after being together for so long, marriage made things different, Windsor said.

"There's something profound. It's not just becoming an equal citizen - it's more than that. It's like your dreams as a 6-year-old, suddenly they're all real," she said.

When Spyer died in 2009, Windsor paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in estate tax that she would not have been charged had she been in a heterosexual marriage. A legal challenge felt right, she said.

Windsor tried to get multiple gay-rights organizations to take on her case, she said.

"They said it was the wrong time for the movement," she said.

Finally, Windsor found attorneys willing to give it a shot. She filed a federal suit in New York. Four years in, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in her favor, rendering the so-called DOMA unconstitutional.

She has received honor after honor. President Obama called to congratulate her, then invited her to the White House. She was a runner-up in the 2013 Time Magazine "Person of the Year" contest.

She is still "terribly busy" - the Temple appearance was her fourth honor in three days, she said.

Windsor had not been back to Temple in 64 years. Back then, the psychology major "was not much of a campus person," and kept her sexual identity to herself. But on Saturday, she was hailed as a hero at the university, where a fund has been established in her name supporting LGBT studies within the women's studies program.

Teresa S. Soufas, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, said it was an "absolute joy" to welcome Windsor, who was named an Alumni Fellow and took questions after an afternoon screening of Edie & Thea, A Very Long Engagement, the 2009 documentary.

"She's somebody about whom we are proud, but to whom we are very grateful," said Soufas.

Ashley Archer, a Temple senior active in the university's LGBT community, was practically buzzing with excitement at Windsor's visit.

"I was this close to her," Archer said breathlessly after passing Windsor.

Archer, 23, a senior business major from Staten Island, participates in the university's Queer Student Union and Queer People of Color. She described the joy and celebration of National Coming Out Week on campus last fall, and said she believed Windsor's life of activism helped make it possible.

"I hope she's proud of that," said Archer.

No question. Windsor is gratified at the thriving gay community in her home city, she said.

"I adore the whole idea of the Gayborhood," Windsor said. "There's a whole world of gay activism here. It's very thrilling to me."


kgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-5146 @newskag

www.inquirer.com/schoolfiles

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|