Edie Windsor flashes a triumphant smile as bright as the wedding band glinting on her finger in her stately portrait at the Stonewall National Museum gallery in Wilton Manors. That smile mirrors the one her younger self gives in a second, smaller photo perched on the nightstand, a candid moment of warmth shared between Windsor and her partner of 44 years, Thea Spyer, who died in 2009.
Windsor sits alone in this black-and-white portrait, but it's a stark contrast with the 12 other photos of LGBT couples displayed nearby that compose the exhibit "First Comes Love: Portraits of Enduring LGBTQ Relationships," opening Friday, Nov. 11. The photos, all shot by Delaware photographer Barbara Proud between 2009 and 2014, come with corresponding essays that celebrate long-lasting same-sex couples.
The portraits capture couples from Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Aventura, but Windsor, Proud says, casts a long shadow in the fight for marriage equality. When Spyer died and left her estate to Windsor, the IRS, which didn't recognize their marriage in Canada as legal, slapped the surviving spouse with a $360,000 tax bill. Windsor sued the federal government in a landmark 2010 civil rights case, United States v. Windsor. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which banned same-sex marriages and the benefits to which spouses are entitled.
"Edie is the Rosa Parks of our community," says Proud, whose own portrait with her partner of 27 years, Allison, hangs in the gallery. "She stood up for us when no one else would. When she fought for her own right to freedom to marry, people said it was too soon, but she made it happen."
A professor at University of the Arts in Philadelphia who goes by the artist moniker "B. Proud," Proud spent years tracking down Windsor. She began the project in 2009, after the passage of Proposition 8 in California, eventually photographing 65 ordinary couples and activists. And then, on her birthday in January 2014, after emails and calls and photo samples, Windsor finally called Proud back.
"She said she thought I was doing great things," Proud recalls. "I wanted to do a project about our community, to make people accept that all relationships are the same. Love is love. The media always portrays our community in its rainbow finest, with pride parades and demos. By [making them black-and-white], I wanted them to seem more heroic."
Heroism appears in the story of Ruthie and Connie, a West Palm Beach couple of 53 years. After tiresome marriages to Jewish men in Brooklyn in the 1950s, they started a nursery school and became activists in the 1980s. They counseled women to come out, marched for LGBT rights and sued New York City for domestic partner benefits. The couple, who moved to South Florida in 2000, are the subject of a 2002 documentary titled "Every Room in the House."
Struggles for equality and acceptance persist in the essay next to a portrait of Bob and Rich, of Fort Lauderdale, lifelong Episcopalians who gave up careers as full-time priests in Connecticut to pursue a relationship in secret. "When he visited Bob in the hospital after surgery, he put on a clerical collar in order to gain access to Bob's room," the essay reads. "He could only show the emotions of priest to parishioner. Rich lamented, 'In those days, I couldn't have made emergency decisions as next of kin.' "
Bob and Rich eventually married. They've been together 59 years.
"The population of South Florida looks just like them," Chris Rudisill, the Stonewall Museum's executive director, says of the portraits. "These are people who've been together decades but couldn't solidify their relationships. Now, we can celebrate the strength of their love."
"First Comes Love: Portraits of Enduring LGBTQ Relationships" will open with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11, at Stonewall National Museum — Wilton Manors Gallery, 2157 Wilton Drive. Admission is $5. Call 954-763-8565 or go to Stonewall-Museum.org.
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