Wednesday, February 21, 2024
InterviewsLGBTQ+ RightsPolitics

Judith Kasen-Windsor wants you to know her wife, Edie

In celebration of Women’s History Month, we celebrate two gay women who found each other and consolidated history.

Judith Kasen-Windsor’s voicemail is full. Even though she has every message from her wife, the late marriage equality pioneer Edie Windsor, backed up on her iCloud. 

“I don’t have it in me to go into my voicemail and hit the delete button,” says Judith, 55, a New York financial adviser and LGBTQ activist.

Edie Windsor (left) and Judith Kasen-Windsor

Judith Kasen married Edie Windsor in September 2016 after years of bumping into each other at community events. Together they enjoyed one brief but blissful voyage around the sun until Edie’s death on September 12, 2017. Since that time, Judith has kept Edie’s legacy alive, including shepherding to publication the excellent memoir A Wild and Precious Life, which Edie penned with Joshua Lyon, and which tells the full life story of Edith Schlain from Philadelphia and how she grew up to do the seemingly impossible: Convince the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down all state bans on same-sex marriage.

Why you need to know Edie Windsor, if you already don’t

Edie Windsor passed away at age 88, just two years and a few months after achieving something we should never forget: That the only reason any queer in this country can get hitched, federally, is because of her.

After decades of grassroots activism and state-by-state victories, it took this petite-but-feisty Jewish octogenarian lesbian to get the job done. Why and how did she do it?

Photo: Ted Eytan

“Edie was known for being tough and for having a temper,” says Judith. “Edie had charm and charisma. “She was sweet and lovely. But if you pissed her off, you pissed her off.”

And the United States government pissed off Edie Windsor when it hit her with a tax bill of $363,053. A bill that she would not have had to pay if she had been married to a man and not eminent female psychotherapist Thea Spyer. 

After retiring from her corporate computer career at IBM, Edie had become an LGBT activist and took on the role of lead plaintiff in the 2013 case United States v. Windsor, which eventually overturned Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. 

And with the help of attorney Roberta Kaplan, Edie won. As the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, under DOMA, there were “two kinds of marriage; the full marriage, and then this sort of skim-milk marriage.” 

Photo: Rex Block

Well, Edie Windsor got us access to full-cream legal recognition. It was a long-awaited victory but nobody had waited longer than Edie. The trauma of her years as a young, reluctantly straight newlywed in Philadelphia; having to go to Canada to marry her beloved Thea after 42 years of dating; not to mention, living for decades as a closeted IBM executive who went to Manhattan’s lesbian bars after work to find love.

“She was genuinely frightened if I kissed her in front of the open window in the apartment,” says Judith. “Who could possibly be looking at us?”

But for Edie, the surveillance and persecution of the 1950s never left her. “They didn’t just arrest you then,” says Judith. “You were outed. They printed your name in the newspaper. You got fired from your job. You were humiliated to your family. It basically ruined your life.”

But pre-Stonewall New York wasn’t all doom and gloom. There was glamour, too.

If you think Holland Taylor and Sarah Paulson are a revolutionary December-May lesbian couple, well Judith and Edie got there first.

“I look at Edie as a lesbian Mrs. Maisel. Just do this visual: A dress, the big sunglasses, a scarf, and she’s driving out to the Hamptons in a light blue, white top convertible Corvair in the late 1960s — I mean is that hot or what? She was sexy, she knew who she was and she was amazing.”

Judith Kasen-Windsor

Another chance at love: How Edie met Judith

Edie missed Thea, who had died from complications related to her heart condition in 2009. And as great as their four-decade romance was (depicted in the documentary film Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement), Edie dated and enjoyed life as an activist in her 80s.

Judith, also an activist, went to the same community events and in 2010 was at a SAGE dinner where Edie was being presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Edie got up to speak and the earth moved for Judith.

“I don’t know what happened,” recalls Judith. “I cannot explain it because you have to understand my life prior to meeting Edie: I was a pretty bad girl. I played the field like Edie and Thea — and then some. I liked to date, I loved taking women out to dinner. I didn’t feel like settling down.”

But then Edie took the stage.

“Edie got up to speak and I had never felt this way, I had never come close to feeling this way. From across the room I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ And my friend was like, ‘Isn’t she a little old for you?’”

Judith Kasen-Windsor

Every time she saw Edie afterwards, whether on TV or at an event, Judith crushed on her from afar. At one event she approached Edie and asked her to lunch. “Oh, I hate going to lunch,” snapped Edie. Then one night at a Callen-Lorde dinner, Judith abandoned her own date to talk to Edie.

“I said, ‘Edie Windsor, one of these days you’re going to go out with me.’ And she whipped around in her chair and she put her finger in my face with that pearly white nail and she said, ‘Stop teasing me.’ And I said: ‘Edie Windsor, I swear, I am not teasing you. I would love to take you to dinner.’ “

Judith Kasen-Windsor and Edie Windsor at the 2016 women’s event in New York City. Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images

The following week after The Center’s holiday party, Judith walked Edie home and they talked for hours. Then, after attending winning attorney Robbie Kaplan’s Hanukkah party, Judith again walked Edie home, but this time was different.

“Edie threw me up against the wall and kissed me. And she kissed me. And she was a really good kisser. It wasn’t a quickie kiss. It was a long one.”

Judith Kasen-Windsor

And just like that, gradually and suddenly, they were togther.

“She did not expect this fame in the last five years of her life. She got standing ovations in restaurants. It was crazy. People would drop to their knees and cry at her feet,” says Judith.

After a Shakespeare in the Park, Judith and Edie found themselves waiting at the stage door to see their friend Judy Gold who was in the cast. Also waiting was Oscar winner Glenn Close. She politely said hello but did not appear to recognize Edie before going backstage.

A few moments later Gold called Judith’s cell: “You’re not going to believe this. Glenn Close just came into the dressing room and screamed out to everybody, ‘Oh my god, I just met Edie Windsor!’” 

Oscar winner Glenn Close was starstruck by Edie Windsor

And then they all went out to drinks.

Where do we go from here?

“I have underwear that’s older than marriage equality,” quips Judith Kasen-Windsor. She fears that the current conservative political climate will see a rollback of LGBTQ and minority rights. “Are we going back to the Woolworth’s lunch counter?”

With the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the United States Supreme Court, marriage equality as a civil right might be on the chopping block — just a few years after we were all celebrating the magnitude of that victory.

If you want something done, get a dyke to do it. Edie and Judith at the NYC Dyke March

And that’s not all: If Donald Trump is re-elected the LGBTQ community will face a human rights challenge not seen since the administration of Ronald Reagan.

And so I ask Judith: What would Edie do?

“Be honest. Stand up, speak up and be brave. I am going to stand up and speak out. I always have. And being a Windsor — it just sort of gets in your blood and I will continue to do it. Our history’s too important not to.”

Follow Edie Windsor’s legacy on Instagram.

Buy A Wild and Precious Life: A Memoir by Edie Windsor with Joshua Lyon here.

Merryn Johns

Merryn Johns is the Editor-in-Chief of Queer Forty. She is an award-winning journalist, as well as a broadcaster and public speaker. Originally from Sydney, Australia where she began her career in journalism in the 1990s, she is based in New York City where she became the editor-in-chief of Curve Magazine and wrote for a variety of publications including Vanity Fair, Vogue, Slate, and more. Follow on Twitter at @Merryn1

Merryn Johns has 138 posts and counting. See all posts by Merryn Johns

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