Edie Windsor was raised in New York by her middle-class father after her mother passed away at a very early age. Thea Spyer and family made their way to New York from Nazi-occupied Europe to escape the Jewish persecution. Very few Jews had the financial means to make this escape. Edie was a young, middle-class woman, gifted in math, who worked at IBM in the budding field of computing. She always knew she was different, but not wanting to accept her homosexuality, she married briefly before separating from her husband and accepting the fact that she was a lesbian. Thea came from a well-to-do Jewish family and knew from an early age that she was gay. Also very intelligent, she was kicked out of one school when she was outed only to land at a different school to earn her Ph.D. in psychology. Along the way Thea had several lesbian affairs.
In 1963 Edie and Thea were introduced to each other in New York City’s Greenwich Village. While there was an immediate spark, because the two women ran in different circles–and maybe because each woman was at a different place with their sexuality–it took two years of occasional meetings before the relationship was consummated. Thus began a ‘very long engagement’ of nearly a half-century, one that would see the two become inseparable life-long partners.
This short documentary, about an hour in length, traces the early lives of Edie and Thea from their childhood and teen years in the thirties and during WWII up to their long-awaited wedding in Toronto in 2007. Along the way, the film explores these two ordinary individuals as they come to terms with their sexual orientation during a period when homosexuality was still very much taboo. But while Edie and Thea in many ways are just ordinary people, their story is extraordinary. Carrying on a lesbian relationship meant dealing with closed-minded family members and people who could cause trouble at their work or at school. But these two brave women not only met those challenges head-on, but managed to carry on a relationship that by any definition should be categorized not just as a partnership but as a marriage.
The documentary does not portray these two women merely as lesbians but as life-long partners, as humans who live, love, laugh and cry. The film leaves no doubt that Edie and Thea belong together and, as partners who have coexisted together for over four decades, deserved the one thing they both desired: to be legally married. It is a tender and very human film that depicts the loving relationship between two individuals regardless of their gender.
The film does a nice job of showing the differences between to the two women. Edie doesn’t have a lot of money while Thea is upper middle class. Edie has trouble coping with her sexual orientation while Thea embraces hers. Edie is more introspective and careful while Thea marches for gay rights during the seventies. But both women have many similarities as well. We learn about the women’s love for travel as we go with them to Suriname and other exotic locales. Both have an affinity for beaches, so we see many snapshots of beautiful young women in bikinis, sun-bronzed and smiling, evidence of a wonderful and contented life spent with the people you love most. We also hear about the triumphs and travails of school and work, the joy of love and of being loved, but the concern that students or co-workers might discover the secret that remains closeted for much of the length of their relationship. As the film moves seamlessly from old family snapshots to modern interviews, the viewer has the sense that these two women have, in the truest sense of the word, a family connection. In many ways their story is unremarkable, just one of millions of happy families that developed throughout the sixties and seventies. School. Work. Vacations. Normalcy. The viewer may even tend to forget that this story is about a lesbian couple because in many ways it parallels traditional families’ tales of life. But what makes this a truly remarkable story is the sheer depth of love and devotion these two women have for each other.
Thea contracts Multiple Sclerosis. As the disease slowly and inexorably attacks her muscles, she first must use a cane, then a walker, before she is finally confined to a wheelchair. Her doctors give her only a year to live, so, in 2007, the two trek to Toronto–not an easy trip due to Thea’s advanced illness–to finally complete the one desire they both need to fulfill. The subsequent wedding is both touching and tender. One gets the sense that both Edie and Thea finally feel complete. Indeed, Thea now states that she can die happily as her last remaining desire has been completed.
The scenes of Edie riding in Thea’s lap as she motors then across the dance floor in her wheelchair are some of the sweetest and most touching scenes I’ve seen on film. The viewer joins in the sense of joy these two have now that they are legally married.
Gay marriage is certainly one of today’s hot topics, but regardless of which side of the fence you may be on, "Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement" is a sensitive and moving documentary that explores the relationship between two people very much in love. It deserves to be seen and is powerful enough that it may just change your mind on the topic.
The film is released by Breaking Glass Pictures and Streets on November 30. For more information, go to www.breakingglasspictures.com or www.facebook.com/pages/Edie-Thea-A-Very-Long-Engagement/211466565323.