Queerly Digital: To A More Perfect Union

By David-Elijah Nahmod

Welcome to Queerly Digital, a regular column about LGBT cinema on DVD and Blu Ray.

Newly out on DVD, Donna Zaccaro’s documentary To a More Perfect Union: US V. Windsor is a short (63 minutes), succinct documentary on the legal battle fought by Edie Windsor, a lesbian in her 80s who refused to let the US government invalidate her relationship.

Windsor and Thea Spyer (the couple married in Canada) were together for forty years. When Spyer died after a long illness, Windsor was hit with an estate tax bill totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s a bill she would not have had to pay was her marriage recognized by the federal government. She decided to sue.

Zaccaro assumes, perhaps correctly, that many younger viewers might not know the history of the gay rights movement in the USA, and so she opens her film with a brief look back at how LGBT people were treated and viewed by society during the 1950s and 60s–police raids of gay bars had been the norm. A cringe-inducing clip from a 1967 CBS news special called The Homosexuals reminds viewers how negatively society viewed LGBT people during those years.

Zaccaro also recalls the formation of The Mattachine Society, an organization of gay men, and the Daughters of Bilitis, a San Francisco based lesbian group, which were the first gay organizations in the USA. LGBT persons finally fought back in 1969 when the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York–the riots which ensued birthed the modern gay rights movement and launched the first Pride parades. It’s a lot of information, and Zaccaro impressively packs it all into the film’s first ten minutes.

The film also recounts the history of DOMA, the Defense Of Marriage Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton when it looked like Hawaii was going to pass the country’s first marriage equality bill–lawmakers were afraid that other states would be forced to honor Hawaiian marriages. Windsor’s suit challenged part of that law and demanded full recognition of her marriage to Spyer.

The bulk of the film focuses on Windsor’s relationship with Spyer, and Windsor’s subsequent legal battle. Interviewees include Windsor herself, and Roberta Kaplan, Windsor’s attorney, who wisely avoids using complicated legal jargon in her interviews which makes the film, and the details of the case, easily accessible to the average viewer.

Viewers will learn exactly what Windsor had to go through in order to get her case heard in the US Supreme Court, no mean feat, made all the more impressive because of her advanced age and the fact that she was suffering from health problems at the time. But she persevered, and her case indeed made it to the high court, attracting national attention along the way.

And though the outcome of the case is well known (Windsor won) the section of the film which includes Kaplan’s oral arguments before the court and arguments from the opposing side play out like a well-done suspense drama.

Ultimately, Windsor not only won her case, but she also paved the way for the establishment of full marriage equality rights in the USA two years later. Now that she is no longer with us, To A More Perfect Union stands as a tribute to her strength, and to her extraordinary accomplishment. The film paints a portrait of her as a hero, rightfully so. Windsor deserves to be remembered. To A More Perfect Union is a lovely remembrance of her.