January 26, 2016
The following is the transcript of a presentation I gave at Chicago History Museum on January 22, 2016. I was honoured to be part of a panel, “Are We Still Fabulous?” alongside Ricardo Gamboa, Francesca Royster, and Joseph Varisco. You can read a description here. My thanks to Jennifer Brier, Michael Cansfield, Franck Mercurio and the Museum for making it such a seamless event, and the preceding reception in the spectacular Chicago room.
Once upon a time, in a land not far from here, two young women fell madly in love and swore to live together for the rest of their lives, even though their love was never sanctified, they had to keep it hidden, and they suffered great poverty.
Then one sad day, one of them died. The other was left to weep for her Beloved, in the tiny but clean hut they had made together out of nothing but paper and sand. As she mourned, she heard a harsh knock on the door. There, standing and glowering at her, was the Sheriff, demanding that she pay taxes on the few, sad remains her Beloved had left her. “But I have nothing,” she cried looking at the forlorn table and chairs, the only signs left of her love. “NOTHING?”, said the Sheriff, “You have here a table and chairs! And since you were never married, you need to pay taxes on what is now YOUR PROPERTY.”
The woman’s heart sank but she was possessed of an indomitable spirit. She searched far across the Land and finally found a Brave Wizard who could help her and help her she did (for the Wizard was not only Powerful, but a Woman. Love and Excellent Counsel saw her through and The King himself decreed in her favour. She was allowed to keep her table and chairs. Even better, from now on, all women and men like her could now come out and sing about their Love. And keep their Tables and Chairs.
This is the widely disseminated fable about Edith Windsor, chief defendant in the Windsor v. United States, the case that helped bring down DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, in June 2013. She sued the U.S government because she had been made to pay taxes on an inheritance from her wife, taxes that heterosexual spouses could avoid. Mainstream portrayals of her, in both the straight and gay press, emphasised her position as the penurious Widow Windsor, barely eking out an existence after being devastated by taxes.
Not, I suspect, by accident, the decision came down just before Pride season, and the parades everywhere celebrated Edith Windsor or Edie as she prefers to be called. Millions of grateful gays and lesbians felt she had stood up for them. For a while, there was even a ubiquitous t-shirt worn by many, with the image of her face and the words, “I AM Edith Windsor.”
But the myth about her poverty was entirely untrue. Windsor had to the pay the taxes she did because the estate went over the exemption limit of nearly 6 million dollars. She was “forced” to pay less than 10 percent of that. Both she and Spyer retired at the top of their fields — she had worked for IBM, and Spyer was descended from old wealth. She owns an apartment in Greenwich Village, and a house in Southhampton. Her net worth is, at a conservative estimate, 10 million dollars, a fact carefully kept from view while the case was in the courts. A New Yorker profile, only published after the decision, describes her vacationing with friends and ends with the words: “Windsor was thinking of buying a condo in Provincetown; her money would be coming back from the government any day. Everyone was feeling lazy in the summer heat, but Windsor had finished her coffee. She got up and said, “Where’s my purse? Let’s go see this town.”
This is not a woman who was hit hard by the taxes but, rather, someone angry that she had to pay them in the first place.
The signs of Windsor’s wealth were always there — her impeccable and stylish hairstyle was clearly not from Hair Cuttery, and she wore her well-fitted tailored silk shirts like a woman used to inhabiting the best clothes.
Which is to say: Edith Windsor had to be made distinctly UN-Fabulous in order for her to resonate with a public that needed to see her as victim. The mainstream press, including the New York Times appeared to collude with her legal team by carefully avoiding any mention of how much she was actually worth — they reported the dollar amount she was forced to pay, but never reveal the full extent of the actual estate. Only Forbes, which can never help boasting about its own, noted that the then forthcoming ruling could help affluent gays like her.
Gay Marriage, as a movement struggle, has often been criticised as assimilation. But that critique allows us to forget that Gay Marriage functions as well as it does because it is a naked tool of capitalism. Windsor’s case reveals that Gay Marriage solidifies a system where the wealthiest few get to pass down their wealth to their descendants and/or spouses. Most of the gays and lesbians who think she is one of them will never see anything approaching that kind of money.
As Edith Windsor is finally allowed to be her fabulous self in her many public appearances, the gay community is now allowed to come out as wealthy — not merely rich, because money is for the dirty proles — but actually wealthy.
Because, well, money? Anyone can make money, which comes and goes. Wealth? It’s what separates the classes. Wealth, real wealth that you can pass on and keep forever even from your grave? Well, that’s just fabulous!
Image source, Arthur Rackam, 1919,"Cinderella"
"I AM Edie Windsor" image courtesy of Matt Simonette