On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage as a union between one man and woman, was unconstitutional. The United States v. Windsor decision meant that legally married same-sex couples were entitled to the same federal benefits as their married heterosexual counterparts.
The plaintiff in that case was Edith Windsor: an 84-year-old woman whose partner of more than 40 years and wife of two years had passed away. But when Edith tried to claim the federal estate tax exemptions that exist for surviving spouses, she was unable to do so because her marriage was not legally “valid”.
For members of the LGBT community, the repeal of DOMA was a giant win and another step closer to full equality. When the Supreme Court announced its ruling, the streets of Washington, D.C. were full of LGBT people and their allies celebrating the fact that they could now access the same benefits that had always been provided to their straight neighbors.
Less than three miles away from the steps of the Supreme Court of the United States, I sat alone in a cramped apartment where I shared a bedroom with three other interns. I read the ruling over and over again while fervently refreshing my social media feeds to see the reactions of those I cared about.
I was excited. But also so very afraid. I wanted to be there. I wanted to see the pure joy on the faces of people who had been told (and would continue to be told) for so long that they didn’t matter. That their love didn’t count. That 45 years together wasn’t enough. I wanted to watch them remind each other that they DID matter. That their love, while no more “real” than it was the night before, was now at least somewhat acknowledged by their government.
But I didn’t go. I wasn’t ready to come out yet. I certainly wasn’t ready to face the pain and heartache that I knew would follow. That day, my excitement was overshadowed by feelings of dread and shame. Dread for the day that I knew would inevitably come – a day where I couldn’t stay hidden inside four cinderblock walls and pretend I wasn’t one of “them”. Shame for my lack of courage and unwillingness to speak out when I knew I should.
I watched Edith Windsor raise her arms in triumph and marveled at the strength of that old woman – someone who had loved and lost so deeply but who spoke so clearly and for so many. What seemed so out of reach for me, she had achieved against all odds.
That summer in Washington, D.C. went on to be one of most impactful experiences in my life. I didn’t “find myself” that summer. But I was able to grow in an environment that made me feel comfortable enough to BE myself.
The coming out process was a long one. Sometimes, I felt like I could do anything. Other times, I felt like I would be crushed under the weight of pain, disappointment, betrayal, and heartbreak. I felt strong and I felt like a coward. I spoke up and I refused to speak. I earned trust and I lost it.
I went on to fall in love myself. And, while my love story didn’t end quite like Edith’s, my courage outgrew my fear and I was constantly reminded that love would always be greater than hate.
Edith Windsor passed away today. But that 21-year-old, who so desperately wished that she wasn’t afraid and that she had half the courage of that 84-year-old woman, won’t forget her anytime soon.
I know I’m not the only one.