Academic journal article Columbia Journal of Gender and Law

A Conversation with Edie Windsor

Academic journal article Columbia Journal of Gender and Law

A Conversation with Edie Windsor

Article excerpt

Suzanne Goldberg [SG): It is not often that a law school gets to welcome a rock star. But in our world, Edie Windsor is a rock star. She is one of the major civil rights plaintiffs of our lifetime, whose lawsuit challenged--and triumphed over--the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Her victory in that suit has been vital to changing the landscape of marriage equality for all Americans. It is a tremendous honor, Edie, to have you here at Columbia Law School, and we welcome you.

Edie Windsor [EW]: Thank you so much.

SG: I will start off by asking the first question in our conversation this afternoon, and then Andrew Chesley and Madeline Gomez, who are both Columbia Law School students, will be following up with questions we have collected from students throughout the law school.

Edie, you have shown courage in every imaginable way: entering the computer science field as a young woman at a time where there were few women computer scientists--in fact, there were barely computer scientists; making the decision to get divorced and then coming to New York City to find other lesbians; and then coming out in so many ways. So when Time Magazine called you the "unlikely activist," it was not quite right because in so many ways, for so many years, you have been an activist, and you have been willing to challenge conventions. (1)

Let's start the conversation by you just talking about how it was as a young lesbian coming to New York and confronting this world, and then also about some of the activism that you've done along the way before you filed your lawsuit against the United States government.

EW: First of all, I came out late enough in life that I missed a lot of the pain of adolescence when you're gay and don't belong. I first had any kind of real relationship with a woman when I was a first-year student in college. And I didn't fall in love seriously with a woman until I was in my third year in college. Meanwhile I had become engaged to be married to a great guy, who was my big brother's best friend. He and I did get married, but when I saw two women together on a Saturday night, I was jealous. I had never been out with a girlfriend even on a Saturday night. I went out with boyfriends. So it was a whole different world. I told my husband, "Honey, you deserve more and I need something else."

But as I said, I missed most of the pain. I came to New York and there was nothing but bars, and 1 didn't even know how to find them. The first time I went to a bar, I really wasn't living in New York yet. I came in for a wedding, and then I got on the Fifth Avenue bus and I went downtown. I stopped a woman on the street who had on a trenchcoat. And I said, "Do you know a bar where only women go?" She sent me to Thompson Street, L's Bar. I sat down at the bar, and I ordered a drink; I had never paid for a drink myself in my life until then. And nobody talked to me. I was dressed to the T, and nobody said hello, nobody said anything. I sat there for two hours and then I left. Okay. I thought, this is not going to be easy.

My first real experience with being afraid of being gay came when I worked on the UNIVAC at NYU, which was mostly subsidized by the government and used primarily by the Atomic Energy Commission. (2) We had to have security clearances. I got a notice from the FBI inviting me to a meeting and saying I did not need a lawyer at this point. I got a book to get ready--and the book was the first time I saw the word gay. (3) It also had an appendix with the states and what was illegal in each state. It said that as far as women were concerned, that in New York, as long as you weren't imitating a man or pretending you were a man, you were safe. And in the bars, everybody said that so long as you were wearing two pieces of women's underwear, you would be safe if the police raided. So I didn't want to lie. If they asked me, I wanted to say, "I am gay." I'll probably lose my job, but I won't be arrested. …

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