To a More Perfect Union: United States v. Windsor

By Kaely Monahan, October 2018 Issue.

The LGBTQ community’s fight for equal rights is the focus of documentarian Donna Zaccaro’s film To a More Perfect Union: United States v. Windsor.

This history lesson takes us from the fledgling gay rights groups of the 1950s to the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013.

To a More Perfect Union runs as a traditional documentary, pairing the historic timeline of events with a variety of interviewees to weave together a picture of how Americans changed their views on gays and lesbians – and same-sex marriage – and the community that relentlessly fought for that right.

It’s filled with archival photos and footage and in the first third of the film we get the abridged version of the gay-rights movement, from Stonewall to the AIDS epidemic and, ultimately, the pivotal moment of the Supreme Court’s decision.

The core of the film is focused on Edie Windsor’s case. She was married to the love of her life, Thea Spyer, in Canada. But when Spyer passed away, Edie was hit with an enormous estate bill from the State of New York and the federal government. At the time, their marriage was not recognized in the U.S., and this chain of events led to Windsor’s decision to sue the government.

Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer married in Canada.

From there, viewers are introduced to Roberta Kaplan, Windsor’s attorney. If Windsor is the lead, then Kaplan is her supporting character. Kaplan’s own story and background is touched on briefly, but most-illuminating is the fact that she knew Thea Spyer, who was a psychologist. Kaplan had sessions with her as a college student when she was struggling with her own concerns about being a lesbian in a straight world.

Kaplan and her team took on Windsor’s case pro bono, and it was Kaplan’s desire to fast-track the case due to Windsor’s age and health. Kaplan wanted Windsor to see victory before she passed.

Adding their perspectives on the dynamics shaking the country leading up to the historic Supreme Court decision are NPR’s legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg and CNN’s chief legal analyst Jeffery Toobin. From their journalistic stance, they outline what made Windsor’s case unique and also successful. Other featured interviewees include Rosie O’Donnell, Frank Rich, and even Matt Staver, the founder and chairman of the Liberty Counsel.

The film neatly lines up how Kaplan and her team managed to win Windsor’s case, detailing, at times ad nauseum, the legal steps it took to get the Supreme Court to change its mind. At one point we hear how one goes about changing the Supreme Court’s mind and how it is different than any other court. Some of the legalese bogs the film down, but Zaccaro keeps the story moving.

To her credit as a filmmaker and journalist, Zaccaro boldly incorporates interviews with Staver from the Liberty Counsel. It was fascinating to get the other side’s perspective straight from the source, as it were, and hear how their argument stacks up against Kaplan and her team.

As a documentary, To a More Perfect Union stands in lock-step with any other solid history-based documentary. It certainly doesn’t wow – as most of us lived this part of recent history – but it does illuminate the LGBTQ community’s struggle to gain acceptance and full recognition for same-sex marriage under the law. However, likely due to the focus of the film, there is little to no mention of trans or queer individuals.

Also noticeably absent from the storytelling is any diversity. There’s no attention or acknowledgment paid to people of color within the LGBTQ community, an omission that wouldn’t have been so glaring if the focus of the film had remained on Windsor’s personal story and her case. But, since Zaccaro takes the time to walk us through the history of the gay rights movement, it would have served the film to at least acknowledge the unique experience and roles of people of color within the community’s timeline.

As is usually the case, there is only so much you can cram into a doc before it becomes unwieldy and unfocused. Overall, Zaccaro’s storytelling is tight and efficient, and it doesn’t dally too much as it moves to its victorious climax. It is worth seeing for the interviews with Windsor alone, as she was perhaps one of the most charming people in the world, and her legacy will live on with every same-sex marriage in America.

To a More Perfect Union screens at 2 p.m. Sept. 29 as part of the Desperado LGBT Film Festival. For more information, visit For additional details on the film festival, click here.

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