LGBT LIFESTYLE  >  The Long and Winding Road to Marriage Equality

The Long and Winding Road to Marriage Equality

The Long and Winding Road to Marriage Equality
Print pagePDF pageEmail page

By Steve Weinstein

The road to the late June decision by a majority of Supreme Court justices that finally extended marriage equality throughout all 50 states began with an elegant, petite, elderly widow.

If, as Shakespeare tells us, some are born to greatness, some rise to it, put Edie Windsor, 86, in the latter category.

After her very long-time partner had predeceased her, Edie Windsor found herself paying $638,000 to the government, money not paid by heterosexual couples. After being turned away by groups that believed the time was not ripe to take this issue on through the courts, she found legal representation, until she finally achieved justice — for herself and all Americans.

Edie Windsor might live in New York’s famous bohemian enclave Greenwich Village, but she wouldn’t fit anyone’s image of a social revolutionary. Always impeccably turned out, Windsor’s charm, manners and personal style are of another age. But fierce determination has carried her along her entire life.

In 1956, she began two decades of being one of the very few women working on computers. She received the very first IBM PC in New York City and co-founded the biggest user groups. She went on to found her own software company, one of the first.

Somehow, she found the time to spearhead several LGBT-related projects, including New York’s community center, local advocacy groups and the Gay Games in 1994.

In more recent years, she has become a tireless advocate for her LGBT peers, serving on the Board of Directors of SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders) and even joining an improv acting group “Old Queers Acting Up.” As a 70th birthday gift, the foundation began the perfectly named Edie Windsor Fund for Old Lesbians.

It was at a neighborhood restaurant in 1965 that she first cast eyes on Dr. Thea Spyer, a clinical psychologist. It was love at first sight, lasting until Spyer’s death in 2009. Although the couple had wed legally in Canada, the U.S. didn’t recognize the marriage.

As important as Windsor looms in the struggle for LGBT equality, she is but one of many seniors who forged the path that so many others have followed. In fact, more than any other major modern civil rights movement, the over-50s have been leading the charge.

Del Martin (who died in 2008) and Phyllis Ann Lyon (now 91) met in 1950 and co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian activist group. Over the Fourth of July weekend, national LGBT leaders met in Philadelphia to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first protest from the Daughters of Bilitis and its male equivalent, the Mattachine Society.

“I have been blessed to have had the opportunity to know so many people upon whose shoulders we all stand: Frank Kameny, Barbara Smith, Edie Windsor and countless others, some well known and many not as much,” said Cathy Renna from Philadelphia.

“It is because of their work and activism, often in a very hostile environment, that are enjoying the tremendous progress we have seen in the past 50 years, which is exactly how old I am,” added Renna, long a spokesperson for major organizations and local ballot measures who heads a consulting group, TargetCue.

The media have been quick to highlight couples lesser known than Martin and Lyon, but who have rushed to legalize relationship that have lasted decades in the face of legal, personal and societal hurdles. Couples like New Yorkers Richard Adrian Dorr, 83, and John Mace, 91, together 61 years.

Or only consider Margarethe Cammermeyer, now 73, whose fight to stay in the military as an out-lesbian was portrayed in a TV movie “Serving in Silence,” starring Glenn Close; and her wife Diane Divelbess. Then there are Vivian Boyack, 91, and Alice Dubes, 90, Iowans who tied the knot in 2014 after 67 years together.

In old age, Lyon and Martin continued to battle for equality. They were the first couple married by the then-mayor of San Francisco in 2004 — an action that eventually led to Californians passing Prop. 8. So there was a delightful irony in Lyon and Martin once again heading the march to the altar in 2008 — after the Supreme Court voided Prop. 8.

Today, Lyon remains active in Old Lesbians Organizing for Change, a group of activist limited to those over 60.

Yes, you heard correctly: over 60.

These men and women became aware of their sexuality in a world that is becoming as distant as Jim Crow. They instinctively knew that what they were feeling was considered wrong and outside the moral framework.

Many of them, if they had the pluck and luck to uproot themselves, made their way to big cities where at least they could congregate in bars — the de facto LGBT community centers. Even there, they weren’t safe. Police regularly raided the bars and randomly arrested anyone for “crimes” ranging from cross dressing to facing the other patrons instead of the bar or even touching another man.

Nor were private parties immune. Actor Tab Hunter was caught up in one such Los Angeles house raid. Newspapers gleefully published names, thus ensuring the loss of career and very often family ties.

It was common for gay men and lesbians to get married, because, well, because that was what one did in those days. Windsor herself was married for less than a year. Barbara Hoffman, an early activist who died recently age 82, finally admitted to herself that she was a lesbian — at her wedding, where she fell madly in love with the matron of honor.

Life lived in the shadows was clandestine, lonely and always under threat of imprisonment, blackmail, or worse. Thanks to last year’s film “The Imitation Game,” everyone knows how the world was deprived of British mathematical genius Alan Turing after the police hounded him into suicide. But there were countless others whose names we’ll never know.

Even toward the end of their lives, until relatively recently (and still hardly uncommon in many parts of the country), these men and women faced yet more challenges and indignities, ranging from intolerant nursing homes to estrangement from their families.

That’s why it’s so important to honor our elders, people like Larry Kramer, the co-founder of the first AIDS service organization and the seminal AIDS activist group ACT-UP. The New York Times neatly summed up Kramer’s continuing irascibility in a recent profile: “He refuses to go quietly into that good night. Larry Kramer continues to rage.”

Kramer is having a moment. Now 80, he is being heaped with late-in-life honors, including a just-released full-length biodocumentary and an honorary doctorate from Yale, the alma mater with which he has had such a rocky relationship.

“It is said that a prophet is not honored in his own land,” said the Rev. Gene Robinson, the first out Episcopal bishop, of proto-irascible LGBT and AIDS activist Larry Kramer. “Many of our real heroes are unknown and ‘lost’ to our younger generation.”

At 48, Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff whose case was the cause of the Supreme Court’s extension of universal marriage last month, is a youngster. But not to worry: Leading the celebratory Gay Pride Parade through Manhattan last month were its marshals, the eminent British actors Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi, both 76. They followed by two years the 2013 grand marshall, Edie Windsor.

Not only are our LGBT seniors not letting the parade pass them by; they’re the ones leading it.

“As someone who has been part of the LGBTQ liberation movement for now half my life, I hear them all whispering in my ear, whether they are with us still or not,” Renna said of her activist forebears. “They’re saying, “We are far from done.”

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Steve Weinstein
Steve Weinstein is a journalist who had interned at the Sunday Times of London and has written for New York Magazine, The International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal (online), CNBC.com and The Village Voice among others. He has edited Crain's New York Business, Edge Media Network, the New York Blade and New York Press, and authored The Q Guide to Fire Island (Alyson, 2007). He lives in Midtown Manhattan with two Staffordshire pit bulls.