October 5, 2016
Edith Windsor, the Queen of Gay Marriage, just got married again. Windsor was the lead plaintiff in United States vs. Windsor, the case which helped make gay marriage legal everywhere. As such, she has gained status as the Queen of Gay Marriage, patron saint for a movement that is widely held to have gained “full equality” for gays and lesbians everywhere.
Windsor was widowed in 2009, when her spouse Thea Spyer (they married in Toronto in 2007) died leaving her with a combined estate tax of over $638,000 ($363,000 federal, $275,000 state). She filed the lawsuit claiming discrimination: Only heterosexual couples were and are exempt from paying the taxes.
Overnight, Windsor became the iconic symbol of a movement of gays and lesbians who claimed to be driven to poverty because of an unjust tax system. $638,000 in taxes is in fact a lot for a single person to pay, but what the gay community, the media, and Edith Windsor’s lawyers carefully avoided mentioning is that this was a small portion, ten percent, of what Windsor had actually inherited, over $6 million worth. In fact, nearly all media outlets reporting favourably on Windsor avoided mentioning the entire amount she owed, reporting only that she was taxed “over $350,000,” leaving out the amount in state taxes altogether.
The two women owned an apartment in Greenwich Village, as well as a beach house in Southampton; Windsor still owns both places and may have added a third in Provincetown. The first two residences are described as “modest” in a Time profile, but this cleverly fudges the fact that they are worth millions in today’s market (the couple bought the properties in the 1960s, when real estate was relatively cheap).
While no one except naifs on social media said she was poor, exactly, the invisibility of her fortune was a strategy tacitly agreed to by nearly everyone who covered the story. The first New York Times article on her provided numbers, but insisted that the amount she owed was not the main issue: “Here, though, are prime numbers: ‘We were engaged for 40 years, and officially married for two,’ Ms. Windsor said.” They also quoted her on the value of her New York apartment which the women bought in 1975 for $300,000. It was, she said, “evaluated at only $1,300,000. That’s because it is ‘unimproved.’ ”
This would be one of the last times, until after the case was finally won in 2013, that any liberal-progressive-lefty media outlet reported on Windsor’s actual finances. The press went silent on such apparently inconsequential details and instead spun endless stories of the long-lasting relationship and love between Windsor and Spyer. Windsor went so far as to attest, to the always unquestioning and often gullible DNAinfo, that “financial hardships” might force her to sell the house in Southampton (innocuously reported as a house in Long Island).
As a result, the myth of Windsor that emerged before the lawsuit was won gave the impression of a tiny, destitute widow, a sad, old woman desperately striking matches to stay warm in the dark of a mouldering hovel in some seedy locale in Big Bad New York City. In fact, as evidenced by her fantastic hair and the way she wore her tailored clothes with style and confidence, she was a woman at ease with wealth, not someone unexpectedly gobsmacked by a tyrannical taxation system (you can always tell when clients have been shoehorned by their lawyers into “respectable” clothes they’re not used to wearing).
A New Yorker profile was the first to reveal her wealthy ways, but only after the decision came down. It described the “opulent” parties she threw with Spyer. Like typical wealthy people with money to spare, they were famous for hosting fundraisers for their favourite charities. A sigh of relief permeates the New Yorker profile, as if the writer Ariel Levy, who trailed Windsor for weeks before the decision, is glad to finally and openly write about the privilege of a woman everyone was determined to cast as someone struggling on the edge of destitution because of an unfair tax system.
The great myth of gay marriage is that it allows gay men and lesbians to finally express their love in the ways that “normal” people do, opens access to healthcare, and removes the financial hardships suffered by people in same-sex marriages. In fact, as we in Against Equality have consistently argued, gay marriage has functioned as the favourite tool of neoliberalism. In brief, the success of gay marriage as a cause does not mark the opening of rights to more people but ensures that essential benefits, including healthcare, are now closed off to the unmarried. To give just one example: Following the legalisation of gay marriage, several state and private employers now require even those in domestic partnerships or civil unions, including straight people, to get married. The logic is simple: since everyone can now get married, everyone must.
The message is equally simple: Marry or die.
At a conservative estimate, Edith Windsor is worth $10 million. For the record, since the press seems incapable of keeping such, and this again comes from a report filed after she won, she was refunded the $638,000 plus $70,000 in interest. She did not have to pay legal fees because the law firm representing her took her case pro bono. Spyer came from — and kept — old money, and both women were highly successful in their careers, as evidenced by the circles they travelled in and the the money they were able to spend (no one among the wealthy hangs out with the un-wealthy). The Times, like nearly every other media outlet, has consistently played down Windsor’s wealth: Its recent announcement of her second marriage only revealed the amount she paid in federal taxes.
If we are to measure who the one percent are by net worth and not by income, as this Times report does, it turns out that Windsor is solidly in this elite class of people: It only takes $8.4 million to join. And it was her marriage that cemented her position in this elite.
Marriage is supposedly an outmoded social institution, as radicals are apt to remind us, but those who critique marriage only for its alleged social and cultural normativeness ignore how much it still remains a cog in the machinery of neoliberalism. It’s no accident that gay marriage is rising to the fore as the only gay cause worth fighting for in places like Britain where essential social welfare programs like its vaunted National Health Services are being cut.
Gay marriage revitalised the idea that marriage is a necessary part of survival and now instrumentalises and normalises the logic of privatisation. After all, who needs readily accessible Canadian or Scandinavian-style healthcare for the unmarried when you can get love and life with the simple act of marrying? Who needs to worry about silly matters like childcare and custody or geriatric care in one’s old age when marriage to someone with a substantial income can take care of all that? Why bother fighting for a system where everyone, regardless of marital status might enjoy equal benefits? I count myself as part of a radical queer left, but too many of my comrades focus on the problems of “homonormativity” or “heteronormativity” and ignore the economic ramifications of gay marriage which has entered the system like a virus and shifted the parameters of possibility. There is no beyond or after marriage because gay marriage has irrevocably shifted the DNA of radical organising so that it must now continually confront and be defined by what too many consider the bedrock movement.
Over and over, from Britain to India to the United States, gay marriage is being cast as the fundamental cause of “equality” for LGBTQ people. First comes marriage, is the argument, then “everything else.” A lot of people insisted, during the most frenetic years of the fight here, that gay marriage would be the rising tide that lifts all other boats. But as we know too well by now, with the drastic and irrevocable cuts in funding to everything from youth services to poverty reduction, gay marriage has been more like the iceberg crashing into the Titanic. Only the privileged get to jump on lifeboats to safety leaving everyone else to drown in seas of debt and poverty.
The Times, which treats gay marriage with a fascinated awe, published what it called “the most detailed map of gay marriage in America” and it confirms everything that we’ve suspected about who gets married, with marriages between wealthy gays clustering mostly along the coasts and cities like New York. It also confirms that gay men and women make more than average straight couples, a stereotype that the gay community battled for years while it fought for gay marriage but now, like Edith Windsor triumphantly showing off her wealth for all to see, is happy to acknowledge with pride. We might recall that nearly every poster couple for gay marriage before it became legal was carefully screened for its “everyday” qualities, including its middle-class aspirations.
This takes us back to Windsor and her latest wedding, described in such cooing terms by the Times. We learn that she married Judith Kasen, a vice president at Wells Fargo Advisors. “Ms. Kasen” as the Times refers to her in its anachronistic and annoying way, lives in an Upper East Side apartment (no doubt a modest one) but spends most of her time nowadays in Windsor’s Greenwich Village apartment and the house in Southampton. If Donald Trump is elected, the two will move to Barcelona, Spain for four years (it’s unclear what they might do if he wins again).
This is not to deny Windsor creature comforts or a flight to Barcelona or even her conservatively estimated $10 million — who among us does not yearn for quick and temporary escapes to foreign climes? It is, rather, to point to the cultural and political confabulation that came about to make her the figurehead of a movement that only benefits a very few and now compels many more, including straights, to marry if they are to enjoy the basic benefit of healthcare. It is to point to the blatant lies that were told and repeated in the portrayal of her as someone who was being financially crushed because her marriage was not recognised.
The news about Windsor’s second marriage comes at the same time as the leak of a taped speech by Hillary Rodham Clinton, Windsor’s preferred candidate, made to a group of sympathetic donors in February. This was before Bernie Sanders withdrew from the race, when Clinton was rallying her troops to point out that her opponent’s call for a revolution was unrealistic and unnecessary. At one point, she describes — to the laughter of those listening — Sanders’s young supporters as “children of the Great Recession...living in their parents’ basement.” She added, in an attempt to seem sympathetic, “If you’re feeling like you’re consigned to, you know, being a barista, or you know, some other job that doesn’t pay a lot, and doesn’t have some other ladder of opportunity attached to it, then the idea that maybe, just maybe, you could be part of a political revolution is pretty appealing.”
I’m writing this at my favourite and independent coffee shop, attended to by baristas who deserve to make excellent wages and have excellent healthcare and whose profession should not be some badge of shame, smirked at by the millionaire tots of millionaires, like Chelsea Clinton. The Clintons’ daughter was given a “job” at NBC that paid $600,000, six times the average for a reporter there, for work that amounted to very little. Chelsea Clinton will never see the inside of a basement for too long because she lives in a $10.5 million apartment in the Whitman Building with, as Manhattan Scout describes it in a deliciously sarcastic piece, “13 rooms, four bedrooms, six and a half bathrooms, all in 4,697 square feet.” The residence spans an entire block and is said to be New York’s longest apartment. In comparison, Chelsea Clinton’s last apartment was valued at $4 million and with only three bedrooms and two bathrooms. The bedroom to bathroom ratio alone surely made that a “modest” apartment by Manhattan standards.
There’s a cheap and flat-footed analysis to be made here, pitchforks rising at the gates of The Whitman, that this just proves the need for the guillotine and how unjust it is that wealth is so concentrated in the hands of the few. All of that is actually true, but leaves us with little sense of the complexity of how elites are actually made, how they justify their existences, and, most importantly, how we learn to identify with them by ignoring their insidiousness.
We live in a world where wealth is both an intangible and a reality. After all, we might look to Donald Trump, a favourite target of the Times which has also, unsurprisingly, endorsed Hillary Clinton and is hell-bent on shining a light on his wealth with an assiduousness and clarity they rarely bring to Clinton’s fortune. In a new and admittedly mind-boggling report, the Times reveals that Trump could have avoided federal income taxes for 18 years by claiming a $916 million loss on his 1995 income tax returns.
For those generally struggling to make sense of the simplest tax forms every April (or earlier, for those more organised and, no, I am not among them), it’s not just the number that is eye-popping but the description of how this was — and is — possible. When challenged about his taxes by Clinton in their first presidential debate, Trump was unfazed and said that he was “smart” in response to her wondering if he had in fact not paid federal taxes. He also smirked that the money would have been “squandered.”
The Times report may or may not make a dent in Trump’s popularity, and I still believe that the election is too close to call. What the Times and its readers are apt to forget is that a significant number of Trump’s most ardent supporters are also not likely to be angry about his tax evasions. But putting even that aside, how far apart are the Clintons and the Trumps? And how far is Edith Windsor, a woman who refused to pay her taxes on a massive fortune because she felt it was unfair, from either family?
You could argue that Windsor is an entirely different case because her money is so easily dwarfed by that of either the Clintons (whose net worth remains a mystery, but is estimated at $100 million) or Trump. But if Windsor’s wealth was not an issue, why did the entire media corps and her lawyers work so hard to conceal it or, even when reporting on it, insist that it was not the point? Certainly, it’s unfair that she should have had to pay taxes that a straight widow or widower would not have had to pay. But as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, “the estate tax is the most progressive component of a tax code that overall is only modestly progressive.”
What Windsor was asked for is what gays and lesbians and several wealthy families have dramatically called the “death tax,” a popular and incendiary name for a simple estate tax, something that 99.8 percent of estates don’t have to pay at all. In the fight for gay marriage, gays and lesbians everywhere worried that they would be made destitute by this “death tax,” but only a miniscule portion of them — only those living in or around the one percent — would have to fork over such large amounts of money. The $350,000 amount thrown around so often by the Windsor camp was a little more than half of the 10 percent she owed — and 10 percent of an estate is a piffling amount to pay to keep up our roads and schools. In fact, even some of the very wealthy, like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and George Soros, advocated for a higher estate tax as a fairer way to redistribute resources (my words, not theirs). Their 2012 call eventually went unheard, and this was undoubtedly in large part because the emotional and affective appeal made by wealthy and loud gays and lesbians drowned out the fairer campaign.
Trump claims to have a $10 billion fortune built largely on actual estate, but the evidence of it is scant. Trump, whose money affirms the death of the gold standard in ways that early neoliberals may not have considered possible, is both a wealthy man and also not-wealthy. That doesn’t make him poor, it just means that much of his wealth is comprised of hot air and built on “money” as shifting and sandy as the Nevada desert outside of Las Vegas where one of his Trump hotels is located. His (entirely legal) tax evasions actually mark him as “small fry,” in comparison to large corporations.
The wealthy are different from us, to borrow from F. Scott Fitzgerald's much-misunderstood passage. It’s not just that they have more money (which would make them merely rich) but that they have the ability to hold on to their money and hide it by various means which include tax schemes to ensure that it passes on, like carefully monitored genes, through their offspring. In this sense, the Clintons are wealthy, and they’ve carefully avoided criticising Trump for his wealth, only complaining that he has not revealed its full extent. As commentators like Doug Henwood and Nathan J. Robinson have pointed out, the Clintons’ wealth has accrued largely through corrupt mechanisms which include their controversial Clinton Foundation. Over and over, the Clintons have been aided in their fudging about money by media outlets that are either sympathetic or directly indebted to them. When a conservative PAC ran an ad about their $100 million net worth, The Daily Beast ran a piece vaguely insisting it was untrue. Daily Beast is part of the giant media company IAC/InterActiveCorp (IAC). Chelsea Clinton is the director of its board of directors.
Wealthy gays like Edith Windsor have always existed, but the legalization of gay marriage now makes it possible for gays and lesbians to openly engage in the dynastic redistribution of their resources formerly enjoyed only by wealthy straight people. Even if they don’t have children to pass the wealth on to, they’re still able to avail of the complex legal machinery that allows their spouses and beneficiaries to hold on to their elite status, as in the case of Edith Windsor. It’s worth considering even a brief and partial history of how this came about, given that the rise of gay marriage is now being rewritten as a fable of love conquering all.
The perceived end of the AIDS crisis for gay white men around the 1990s (the epidemic has continued unabated for millions of others in the world) saw the rise of organizations like Human Rights Campaign and their politicking for the expansion of marital rights for gay men and lesbians. Queers in prior decades had agitated for causes like universal healthcare, but the rise of a wealthy and increasingly powerful minority gay community meant a shift in focus and funding efforts. As several activists and scholars have pointed out and as quickly emerging facts now indicate, gay marriage was thrust upon us in order to benefit a few. The legal scholar Nancy Polikoff assiduously details, in her book Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage, how the benefits that individuals, couples, and families require could easily be disbursed through means other than marriage, but that message went unheard in both straight and gay communities. In the meantime, severely marginalised segments of the queer population struggle with matters like geriatric housing, HIV/AIDS, youth homelessness, and rising poverty, issues for which there is little systemic support and for which we must now resort to fundraising from private sources.
Edith Windsor is a direct beneficiary of these shifts in political energy. While her wealth is by no means as extensive as the Clintons or the Trumps, she belongs to an elite, a fact she temporarily effaced in order to make the case that she was on the brink of poverty.
The differences between Trump and Clinton are not about how much they have but the extent to which they make their wealth clear. Trump openly espouses greed and tax evasion as qualities everyone should emulate. Hillary Clinton has nothing but contempt for the very people she claims she will fight for. She has adopted some of the rhetoric about college tuition, for instance, but there is little chance, given her record, that she will actually follow through. Everything about her so far indicates she is entirely beholden to wealthy corporations and their — and her own — tax interests.
The bigger problem: A focus on taxes and tax information doesn’t get at the central problem in the United States, which is that our conversations keep coming back to how much we can get — more income, more house-buying power, fewer taxes, and so on — instead of what we all deserve regardless of how much we make, like healthcare and education. John Oliver puts it succinctly in his description of why income inequality persists in this country, when he points out that most Americans even when shown the astonishing disparities that exist really only feel that, “I can clearly see this system is rigged, which is what’s going to make it so sweet when I win this thing.”
There are those famous photos of the Clintons at Donald Trump’s third wedding in 2005, with Donald and Melania Trump flanking the Clintons, all four of them encircling each other with their arms and smiling for the cameras. Trump has also been a donor to the Clinton Foundation, an awkward fact ignored by the Clintons who see no reason to remove themselves from the organisation even after evidence emerged that it benefited from her influence as Secretary of State.
Given the relatively — relatively — tiny size of her fortune, Edith Windsor is at best a wealthy donor to political campaigns, but she still belongs to an elite, wealthy gay and lesbian men and women who quietly and forcefully managed to get laws changed in their favour in order to advance their own financial agenda. The story of how a multimillionaire was cast as the penurious figurehead of a movement centred around the accrual of wealth as a privilege and a right is a longer one, to be traced elsewhere in my book. But as I’ve already written in “How Gay Marriage Became Gay Wealth: A Fable,” the Windsor case is significant not because it paved the way for gay marriage but because it now made it possible for the gay elite to finally, legally, and in the fullest financial sense of the term become part of the economic elite.
Windsor’s position in the gay elite and the wealth of the two candidates are symptomatic of a society where presidential candidates offer nothing more than aspirational dreams, politics as a Kardashian reality show, the endlessly proffered hope that we might all rise to great wealth. Of all three, Windsor has been the most insidious, claiming poverty or something close to it in order to effect a tax evasion, something she has in common with Donald Trump (the evasion, not the claim to poverty). And it’s not unlikely that the Trumps and Clintons will hobnob once again, as part of New York’s most influential elites.
It’s a sign of the severe inequality of our times that the one percent can comprise such a range of wealth holdings, from 10 million to 100 million to, supposedly, 10 billion.
It’s not that we don’t have choices. We can choose between an elite that hides its privilege when convenient, an elite that gives you the hope of becoming just like its members, if you’ll only be patient and wait for it to come to you in due time, and an elite that demonstrates open and honest contempt for the rest of us.
Go ahead: Choose your elite. You’re screwed in every other way.
With many thanks to the Against Equality Collective (Karma Chávez , Deena Loeffler, Conrad Ryan, and Alexandra Silverthorne), Steve Dew, Nathan Gelb-Dyller, Elise Harris, and Richard Hoffman Reinhardt.
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Nathan J. Robinson, “The Clinton Foundation’s Problems Are Deeper Than You Think.”
Doug Henwood, excerpt from My Turn, in Alternet.
Politico, “Time for Chelsea Clinton's Easy Ride to End.”
Manhattan Scout, on Chelsea Clinton’s $10.5 million apartment.
False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton, ed. By Liza Featherstone (I have an essay, “Marry the State, Jail the People: Hillary Clinton and the Rise of Carceral Feminism.”
You can listen to interviews with various contributors here.
Doug Henwood’s My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency.
Nathan J. Robinson’s Superpredator: Bill Clinton's Use and Abuse of Black America.
NYT, “Donald Trump Tax Records Show He Could Have Avoided Taxes for Nearly Two Decades, The Times Found.”
DNA Piece with claim that Windsor might have to sell one of her properties, “81-year-old Woman Sues Feds for Not Recognizing Her Gay Marriage.”
First NYT piece which also reveals how much her property is worth, “Woman Says Same Sex Marriage Bias Cost Her over $500,000.”
New York Times, “The Remarriage of Edie Windsor, a Gay Marriage Pioneer.”
Time magazine piece, with photos of their homes and lives, “Edith Windsor, the Unlikely Activist.”
CNN piece after decision, on how much she would get back, “Edie Windsor is owed $638,000 plus interest.”
Edith Windsor’s Op-Ed, “Op-ed: Love trumps hate, or why I’m voting for Hillary Clinton.”
Forbes, “The Same Sex State Death Tax Trap Post DOMA.”
Gay Marriage and Its Costs:
Against Equality, “Neoliberalism’s Handiest Little Tool”: Against Equality on Marriage,” interview with Joshua Pavan.
Against Equality, archive (in process of updating) on Gay Marriage.
Yasmin Nair, “How Gay Money Became Gay Wealth.”
Yasmin Nair, “Marry You Must: Gay Marriage in Illinois.”