because there was no other option, not even imagination, when it was 1976, and kisses were only for boys.
Our high school graduation came in June, and the keys to our home in September. At eighteen we were best friends and workers—not college kids—but grown folks with full-time jobs and monthly bills in a cash-only economy; those days when stuff still came from working, not from credit cards or support from parents who had saved.
We signed a lease on a two bedroom Craftsmen with hardwood floors and a fireplace, in a neighborhood near Lake Washington called Madrona, for two hundred dollars a month. We moved in boxes of books and clothes, threw a mattress on the dining room floor, and emptied two bags of groceries into the kitchen cupboards, before unrolling our sleeping bags to catch our first dreams under our first adult roof.
Thirty-seven years ago, I moved across a mattress, found the courage and her lips, and spilled my heart into hers with the blind trust of young love. We became lesbians only later, when identity and discrimination and liberation called us out. But that autumn morning, and so many that followed, we only answered the call of love; we only spoke the magic of our happiness; we only knew that our hearts were meant to be linked forever.
It was Karen I called when I heard the news, my first adult love, from my computer in Colombia to her cell phone in Seattle. The Defense of Marriage Act had been defeated—DOMA—the federally sanctioned segregation of gay Americans from the moral rights of love and the civil rights of equal access. The Supreme Court had ruled once again to uphold the civil rights of the constitution. I had to call Karen; I had to talk with her first.
She and I remained family after our partnership faded, sisters forever, in that elevation of friendships to blood lines so common for gay Americans. Millions of us compensated for discrimination and banishment, the price paid for daring to follow our hearts, by creating families of choice, by counting on community, by initiating vital, but segregated social institutions.
“We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it,” first uttered in 1990, became an activist cry to breach bigotry, end segregation, and normalize homosexuality. Twenty-three years later, pointing toward the tenth amendment, same-sex marriage leaped to federal recognition by way of a state’s right to define the marriage of its citizens.
But it was before gay liberation—or my first kiss—in the nineteen sixties, when two adult women began what would become a four-decade engagement, until one day in 2007 they crossed a border and became married in Canada. One of those women, Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in the DOMA decision, told their story before the Supreme Court decision:
“My late wife, Thea Spyer, was, and is, the love of my life. Although we couldn’t live openly for much of our relationship, we became engaged in 1967 with a circular diamond brooch that symbolized the rings we weren’t able to wear on our fingers. And we stayed engaged for the next 40 years, caring for each other, sharing all the joys and sorrows that came our way.
In 1977, Thea was diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis, which became debilitating over time. First, she had to use one cane, then two crutches, then a wheelchair. In Thea’s last years, she was quadriplegic. We were lucky that the MS never affected her brilliant mind or her cognition, and that she was able to continue seeing patients as a psychologist until the day that she died.
In 2007, we learned from Thea’s doctors that she had only one year to live. When we realized that we were running out of time, we decided to marry in Canada. That marriage was recognized in our home state of New York. We wanted to be married for the same reason most people want to marry: to publicly and legally express our love and commitment to one another.
When our wedding announcement ran in The New York Times, we heard from hundreds of people from every stage of our lives—playmates and schoolmates, colleagues, friends and relatives—pouring out love and congratulations because we were married. That’s why marriage is different—it’s a magic word recognized by everyone as a demonstration of commitment and love.
When my beautiful Thea died two years later, I was overcome with grief. Over the next month, I was hospitalized with a heart attack, and, in the midst of my grief, I realized that the federal government would not recognize our marriage. DOMA restricts federal marriage benefits and state-to-state recognition of marriages only to unions between a man and a woman. Because of DOMA, I was required to pay $363,000 in federal estate taxes that I would not have had to pay had I been married to a man instead of Thea.
This was not only painful, it was wrong. I knew that Thea would want me to stand up for our marriage—and for so many other gay couples and their families who are harmed by this unjust law. I believe that all marriages should be treated equally by the federal government in accordance with the Constitution.”
This is the love story that changed the law of a nation. Marriage is different, and for the love of Thea and Edith, our civil liberties—finally—can honor more hearts.