LGBT History in the Hamptons: Edie Windsor’s Heart and Soul

Judith Kasen-Windsor and Edie Windsor
Judith Kasen-Windsor and Edie Windsor, Photo: Jared Siskin/PMC

Have you heard of The Swamp? How about The Attic? These are lost but certainly not forgotten relics of the Hamptons’ gay past. In celebration of LGBT History Month, we’re kicking off a series of stories about the heritage of the LGBT experience on the East End.

The late Edie Windsor, whose landmark Supreme Court case United States v. Windsor overturned Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, called the Hamptons her home. And though she died in 2017, her legacy lives on.

Windsor’s second wife, Judith Kasen-Windsor, has helped carry on the great work spearheaded by Windsor and marvels at the remarkable life she led. Kasen-Windsor, a financial advisor, was mystified that Windsor, who worked for IBM, was able to buy property in the Hamptons by herself. “So I said [to Edie], ‘In 1968, women could not get mortgages and if the husband and wife went for a mortgage, the wife’s salary wasn’t included in the mortgage. And women didn’t have credit cards in those days.’ So I said, ‘I know so many people who don’t have $35,000 in cash laying around where they would on a whim buy a house in the Hamptons. Where did you get $35,000 in cash?!’ And she said, ‘I was just good with money!’” Kasen-Windsor laughs. “A couple of days later, out of nowhere, Edie tells me this story about how when she worked at IBM they would go to Las Vegas and how she was able to count cards and how she got kicked out of the casino. I said, ‘Edie! That’s how you could afford to buy a house in the Hamptons in the ’60s!’”

Windsor met Thea Spyer in 1963 and the two were married in Canada in 2007. After Spyer’s death in 2009, Windsor sought to claim federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses but Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act prohibited her from doing so, despite New York State recognizing the marriage. “Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Edie and Thea had already been together 30 years. That hurt,” Kasen-Windsor says. The ensuing court case overturned Section 3, which codified non-recognition of same-sex marriage for all federal purposes.

This was a massive, historic milestone, but Windsor’s activism extended far beyond the court case. Even back in the 1960s, Windsor was friends with many gay men, despite the social divide between gay men and lesbians. “Edie would go out [to gay bars] with her boys, and she said she would always go because if the bar was raided she could help one of them,” Kasen-Windsor says, referring to the police raids that loomed large over the gay bar community. Windsor would pretend to be one of the gay men’s companions, saving them from being outed.

And when the AIDS crisis overtook the gay community in the 1980s, Windsor was there to help. “Lesbians came in and helped the men and the boys,” Kasen-Windsor explains. “They were cleaning the soiled sheets and vomit, and getting their medication. That’s when the community came together, during the AIDS crisis. All the guys she hung out with in the ’50s and ’60s were all gone.”

Windsor, of course, became an icon for gay rights and liberation. Edie’s Backyard BBQ is an annual event that Windsor created to bring the Hamptons LGBT community together. “There’s a very strong, giving community,” Kasen-Windsor says. “We’re very into supporting our causes, we have fundraisers, and we have the Edie Windsor Center at Southampton Hospital [for HIV/AIDS care]. Edie and Thea had that party every Memorial Day weekend to bring the community back together.”

But despite being a pioneer and, by all accounts, a true hero, Windsor was human. “She wouldn’t hold my hand on the street,” Kasen-Windsor says. “Edie carried those fears her whole life. She was very proud and dignified, but those things were ingrained in her being.” Still, her strength and resolve was unflappable. “It was fascinating how she really tended to brush right through all the painful memories. They were in her heart and soul and head and she brushed right by them. She didn’t want to look back at the past. She was happy and grateful for where
we are.”

Edie Windsor’s book, A Wild and Precious Life: A Memoir, is available now.

Next: A gay man on acceptance, surviving HIV and remembering those who didn’t make it.

Read more about LGBT History in the Hamptons.

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