Edith Windsor died at the age of 88 this week. Her legacy in bending the arc ever more toward justice — nationwide and indeed within the faith community — cannot be overstated.
In 2013, Edie won her Supreme Court case in a landmark victory for LGBTQ rights in the United States. I was newly out, trying to become a minister in a denomination that had just begun allowing the ordination of LGBTQ people. Even as my church still struggled to be fully inclusive toward LGBTQ people, many of us saw hope and possibility in stories like Edie’s. That hope kept us faithful — both to God and to our own queer identities.
For Edie, the issue was one of taxes; she had been made to pay over $500,000 in estate taxes after the death of her spouse, Thea, simply because Thea was a woman. In response to Windsor’s case, the court ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. The result was federal recognition of spousal benefits for same-sex married couples for the first time.
While the Windsor decision only applied to 13 states and the District of Columbia, another ruling exactly two years later — in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges — secured federally recognized marriage equality for same-sex couples nationwide, along with all associated rights and benefits.
Edie was 83 years old when she won her Supreme Court victory and forever changed the landscape of queer justice in America. She had spent more than 40 years engaged — and then finally married — to her partner Thea, until Thea’s death in 2007. Yesterday, at age 88, Edie died. When I read the news on my twitter feed, I cried quietly at my desk.
Younger queer people have inherited a world that was largely built by people like Edie and Thea. It is still imperfect — still lacking in many of the basic liberties and protections that LGBTQ people deserve, especially for transgender people and queer people of color. But it is a world where LGBTQ justice is not a myth or a dream, but increasingly a reality.
That reality has been painstakingly carved by LGBTQ people who have come before. Many of them did not set out to change the world. They set out, rather, to simply exist and — upon confrontation with a world that said they couldn’t — they fought. This world, and all of us, have been transformed by their victories. We have also been transformed by their tragedies, their losses, their pain, their erasure, and the abominable violent dehumanization that they endured but did not accept. Edie and Thea, Jim Obergefell, Harvey Milk, James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, Ellen DeGeneres, Teena Brandon, Matthew Shepard, and countless others. These are the saints who laid the stones for queer sanctuary, queer hope, in a hostile world.
Most of those who have led the charge for LGBTQ justice have done so outside the bounds of the church, pushing the church forward primarily by providing a better witness of love and grace than the church itself often has. Others though, have toiled away inside their churches and denominations for countless decades. Most of them are less well known to the wider world - but no less crucial to the wellbeing of LGBTQ Christians who have come after them.
They are people like David Sindt, a Presbyterian minister who, in the 1970s, rode up and down an escalator at his denomination’s national assembly holding a sign that said, “Is anyone else out there gay?” Then there is Babs Miller, another Presbyterian who was ordained three decades after beginning the ordination process. She left the process because she refused to be closeted and instead became a chaplain, helping families whose queer children had died of AIDs, but whose churches were unwilling to support them.
To be a justice-seeking, LGBTQ Christian today is to stand upon the shoulders of this great cloud of saints — within the church and without — to find strength and courage in their witness. We are called to take up their mantle. To stand with those who still fight, to learn from their example and to join in their work.
And to those like Edie, who gifted us with a world made better by their living, their loving, their fighting and who now rest in the arms of a love bigger and broader than us all, we outstretch our hands. We take the world they’ve given us into our own embrace and — bolstered by hope but knowing the work is far from done — we say, “Thank you. For everything. We’ve got it now. We’ll take it from here.”