Skip to main content

Forty years ago, Thea Spyer bent down on one knee in a Manhattan street, pulled out a diamond pin and asked Edie Windsor to marry her.

Tuesday of last week, a friend gently lifted her arm so that the 75-year-old, now confined to a wheelchair by multiple sclerosis, could finally wed the love of her life in a ceremony at a Toronto hotel.

The two women had waited four decades for the chance to be married in their home state, but in the face of Dr. Spyer's advancing illness, gave up the hope of ever achieving that right.

Story continues below advertisement

"On one occasion recently it looked like it was going to be very close to the end," Ms. Windsor, 76, said from their Fifth Avenue home this week. "We just said, 'We're running out of time.' "

Since same-sex marriage was made legal in Canada in 2003, 1,597 couples from the United States have travelled to Toronto to wed. But the opportunity to do so has a growing poignancy for elderly couples whose lifelong battle for equality is being lost to the inevitable march of age.

Ms. Windsor and Dr. Spyer's wedding was organized by Brendan Fay, founder of the New York-based Civil Marriage Trail project, which has helped same-sex couples get married since its inception in 2003.

"We've had a number of elderly couples who have decided to go to Canada in their final years," he said.

"Last year, I brought a couple to Toronto who were both in their 80s."

Mr. Fay said many of the older couples have delayed their wedding date for the chance of getting married at home. While eight U.S. states allow civil unions among same-sex partners, only Massachusetts recognizes the union as marriage, and couples must live in the state to qualify.

"People have mixed feelings about crossing the border to Canada. There's a certain national pride as Americans and they feel they ought to be able to marry in their own country," he said. "They want to wait for that and work for that moment."

Story continues below advertisement

Some couples who are now in their 70s and 80s were among the first to fight for gay rights decades ago, he added, and feel that leaving home to wed is a capitulation of their efforts.

"It's a crime that couples like this have to come from the liberal state of New York," said Mr. Fay, who married in Toronto in 2003. "That to me is a human tragedy."

The romance between Ms. Windsor and Dr. Spyer has been anything but tragic.

They met in 1965 in a restaurant in Manhattan's West Village, leaving together to attend a party at a friend's apartment where they danced the night away, eventually wearing a hole through Ms. Windsor's stockings.

"Dancing with our coats on, and other people standing at the door, annoyed, waiting for us," she recalled in a wedding announcement in The New York Times.

"She was smarter than hell, beautiful - and sexy."

Story continues below advertisement

Their very private romance progressed even as the two women made great strides in their professional lives. Ms. Windsor was senior systems programmer at IBM, while Dr. Spyer, who is a psychologist, worked at a number of Manhattan hospitals and later as the director of a psychiatric clinic.

She was diagnosed with MS in her 40s, and over recent years the couple have adjusted their lives to deal with the illness that has now rendered her quadriplegic.

When Dr. Spyer lost movement in her arms two years ago, leaving her unable to read a book or lift a newspaper, Ms. Windsor - who has herself undergone open-heart surgery - rigged a TV to her laptop and began downloading eBooks.

"When I first met her she played the violin and played golf and was extremely active," Ms. Windsor said. "She's an incredible human being. This is a woman who reinvented herself every year of her life."

The couple flew to Toronto with a group of six friends, including Dr. Spyer's physician, each of whom had a task from assembling her wheelchair to helping with the exchange of rings.

In a hotel conference room decorated as a chapel, Ms. Windsor perched on the arm of Dr. Spyer's wheelchair, modifying her vows by saying: "From this day forward, as in all our days past."

Mr. Justice Harvey Brownstone, who officiated the ceremony, said many of the gay couples coming to Canada to marry have been together for decades. The decision to leave home is not easy, he added, especially when advanced age adds to the risks of travel.

"It's bittersweet for sure," he said. "This is the last trip she'll ever take."

After the wedding, he told the women they had married for all the people who died before same-sex weddings were possible, Ms. Windsor recalled.

"We've both been trying to describe it, because what could be different if you've lived together as if married for 40 years?" she said. "There's something about the word marriage. There's a certain dignity."

She believes her country will eventually legalize the ceremony for same-sex couples, but doesn't think she and the woman who proposed 40 years ago will be around for the occasion.

"Probably New York state will get to it in a couple of years," she said. "Not in my lifetime."

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Urban affairs reporter

Toronto based writer of all things city related. More


The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨