Inside the Love Story That Brought Down DOMA

An interview with the filmmakers who put Edith Windsor in the national spotlight
Spyer and Windsor at home in the Hamptons (Screen shot from Edie & Thea/Bless Bless Productions)

In 2007, New Yorkers Edie Windsor, 77, and Thea Spyer, 75, made plans to travel to Toronto, Canada, so they could be legally married after four decades together. When one of the wedding organizers introduced them to renowned documentarians and longtime partners Susan Muska and Gréta Ólafsdottir, the filmmaking duo quickly realized that they’d found their next project.

Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement premiered in 2009 at San Francisco's Frameline Film Festival, four months after Spyer passed away. "It got a standing ovation," Ólafsdottir remembers, sitting in the Manhattan apartment she shares with Muska. "It was a beautiful gift to Edie."

It soon became something even more. After Windsor was forced to pay $363,053 in estate taxes, she sued the federal government to recognize her exemption as Spyer’s surviving spouse. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in her favor—and struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in the process. The couple’s love story, captured so compellingly in Edie & Thea, played a huge role in the outcome. As Muska puts it, “Edie will say the film was the evidence for her case that she had a relationship that could be called a marriage.”

The film documents Windsor and Spyer's remarkable romance and their struggle to thrive in a homophobic world. Despite their ever-present fear of being outed, the two women managed to hold onto their hard-won careers—Windsor was a computer consultant at I.B.M and Spyer a clinical psychologist. The cosmopolitan beauties lived large, drinking and dancing at the hottest underground queer clubs, sunning at the Hamptons in the summer, traveling from Suriname to Venice, and loving one another with passion and devotion. After Spyer, a sultry brunette, was struck with chronic progressive multiple sclerosis, Windsor remained by her side, caring for her and finding innovative ways to preserve their sex life. Gay rights aside, this may be the film's most groundbreaking achievement: It depicts two septuagenarians—one disabled—as vibrant partners full of fun and palpable sexuality.

Muska and Ólafsdottir have been making socially conscious films for the past 20 years, beginning with their Emmy-nominated first effort, The Brandon Teena Story. The filmmakers spoke to me about the love lessons they learned from Windsor and Spyer and described some of the movie's revealing outtakes.

Stephanie Fairyington: How did you two meet Edie and Thea? 

Susan Muska: Through one of our filmmaking friends, Brendan Fay, who was running this organization called The Civil Marriage Trails. It was like the Underground Railroad for gay and lesbian couples in New York to be legally married. In 2007, while you still couldn't get married in New York State, your marriage would be recognized if you were legally married elsewhere. So everyone was going up to Toronto, and Brendan was an intermediary with all the facts and logistics. On day he told us, "I met this great couple and I think you should meet them."

Ólafsdottir and Muska 
(T. Charles Erickson)

Gréta Ólafsdottir: I think we all kind of clicked. It was quite amazing. 

SM: Because we didn't start out wanting to make a film only featuring them. We interviewed lots of people.

GO: We were in that period where you are forming your ideas and we saw the possibilities of telling a much bigger story through their love story. Because they were in their 70s, it gave us a chance to cover a big swath of LGBT history and civil rights. 

SF: Did you learn things about that history from them that you didn't already know?

SM: I had already worked on a lot of LGBT stories for DykeTV in the 90s, so nothing was totally new. But it was very enlightening to spend a lot of time with people who had lived with the kind of oppression they'd lived with, the secret lives and underground social worlds. Edie and Thea really had to be careful because they were very academically and professionally successful people, and they were operating in a world that believed that homosexuals had a mental disorder. The reality of that was made very clear for us while we were making the film. Thea was kicked out of Sarah Lawrence College when they found out she was gay. When I told that to the PR person of the school, she said, "You've got to be kidding!"

SF: Sarah Lawrence is the gayest school on earth.

SM: I know!

SF: It must be challenging being a couple and working together so closely. Do your visions ever clash? How do you negotiate your creative differences?

SM: We beat each other up! I always want to include too much information. Greta is good about paring down. We have a lot of back and forth, until we get something we like. Or, we just wear each other out.

GO: When you are making documentaries, if something doesn't fit in the story, no matter how much you love it, you have to cut it.

SM: Because we get so close to the material, we can't simply rely on our own judgment. So we invite friends of ours who are editors and really good story tellers over for drinks and dinner to get their feedback. 

SF: Can you share some scenes you loved but had to cut from Edie & Thea?

SM: There's a lot! We had some very fun stories about sex.

SF: Like?

SM: Just about how in the 60s and 70s there were sex toys you couldn't buy because they were illegal.

GO: But, you could import them from other countries. And they did.

SM: They had to learn the words for things they wanted to purchase from other countries. It's amazing that they actually lived through that time period.

GO: Another bit that was cut, but was very telling: While we were filming a scene of them swimming together, Thea had hardly been in the pool for more than a minute when she had a seizure and had to be given her heart medication. She had to leave the pool. We were sitting around her, trying to make sure she was okay.

SM: After a few minutes, Thea recovered and insisted on going back into the pool because she knew we had not gotten enough footage. We didn't want her to. It seemed too risky, but she kept saying "No, you didn't get what you needed!" Like Edie, Thea was an unstoppable force.

SF: Were there other challenges to making this film due to Thea's health?

GO:  It took a long time for Thea to get ready for us to come over and film. Also, there was a limit to how long we could interview her. We always had to make sure we didn't go too long so it wouldn't be exhausting. 

SM: For someone who is quadriplegic and can only move her head and one finger, everything is dependent on health and assistance in getting ready. We weren't doing an exposé, so we could afford to work with them on their time, when they felt ready or when they took an initiative. We often forgot that Thea actually had limited time. When we met her, she had less than a year to live and that was the impetus for their marriage. But as we got to know them, we sort of were in denial about that—even though we were constantly reminded when she'd have heart seizures and have to take medication. 

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Stephanie Fairyington is the co-founder and editor of The Slant.

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