Breaking new ground happened professionally for Edie Windsor when she entered—and thrived—in what was then the brand-new field of computer programming during the 1950s and 1960s. Windsor worked for IBM, an early leader in computer technology, in an industry that to this day remains dominated by males. Windsor reached the highest technical level at IBM: senior systems programmer. But Windsor didn’t tell her co-workers or superiors a secret: she was gay. “I lied for 16 years,” recalls Windsor.
Windsor left IBM in 1974, but she kept in touch with her fellow “techies” and remained keen to keep up with new advances. It was her computer skills that first connected her to a local gay community center. “They said, ‘We’re having trouble with our computers and we heard you’d worked at IBM,’” she recalls. “From there on in, I set up everyone’s mail systems and things like that. That was way, way back, in the late ’70s, long before any of my heroics in court.”
The community center, now known as SAGE, continues to benefit from Windsor’s advocacy and example. It offers supportive services and resources for older LGBT adults and their caregivers and provides cultural competency training for aging providers and other LGBT organizations.
Windsor, now 87, is credited with leading the way to groundbreaking Supreme Court decisions in recent years. In United States v. Windsor, she successfully won the right to inherit the estate of her wife, Thea Spyer, without paying inheritance taxes. Windsor’s case led the way to many states legalizing gay marriage.
Lynn Faria, chief officer for external affairs at SAGE, says she knew Windsor as a generous philanthropist and crusader long before working alongside her to promote SAGE’s work to raise awareness of LGBT issues among the aging. Windsor’s generation might never have “come out,” due to social pressure, Faria says: “We also see a lot of folks who were ‘out’ but when they became much older and needed to move back with family or in a rehab facility, went back in the closet.” Among other things, SAGE works with medical providers, caregivers, and others to learn “not to make assumptions” and to be tactful when asking about a person’s spouse or children.
Faria says Windsor provided an inspiring role model for others with her class and bravery. “She carries herself with such grace and aplomb,” says Faria.
Windsor has devoted more than four decades as an activist for gay rights, while at the same time providing a dignified yet fearless role model.
Although she’s an octogenarian and suffers from hearing loss, Windsor’s activism is still going strong. “I’m totally involved,” she says. “Every weekend I go to an event. I speak at many of them. Most of my social life takes place in the gay world. Much of that has to do with actual organizations and the like. We are friends; we’re all related to each other.”
“I didn’t want to stop. I loved it,” she continues. “If I could take you to one of the things and you could watch the people who approach me and say, ‘Thank you, you’ve changed my life’ or ‘You’ve changed my kid’s life’—it’s hard not to stay engaged.”