Sophomore Ann Horwitz was in Babbitt Residence Hall when a friend came by the common room to deliver the news — the Massachusetts Supreme Court had announced that same-sex couples had the right to marry. Horwitz and her friends, a bit incredulous, turned on the seldom-used television. No state had ever allowed such a thing. It was November 2003.
“I was deep in the closet at the time,” recalls Horwitz ’06, “and I think that part of the reason was that I was afraid of all the things I thought other people thought being gay meant, and that I would be ostracized, and that there was no way I could live the life that I imagined for myself if I were openly gay. Just seeing that there had been this level of equality reached — even though it was only one state at the time — was pretty major for me.”
A day or so later, Horwitz learned that the lead attorney behind the landmark victory, Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, was Mary Bonauto ’83 H’05, civil rights project director for the Boston-based Gay and Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, known as GLAD. Horwitz felt comforted to think that Bonauto had walked the same halls she was walking. She also felt proud.
The first same-sex marriages took place in Massachusetts 10 years ago this spring, the fruits of Goodridge. A year ago this June came another landmark victory in the push for marriage equality: The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, which denied federal marriage benefits and privileges to married same-sex couples. By many accounts, Bonauto’s work in marriage rights paved the way for the Windsor v. the U.S. victory. In 2009 and 2010, she challenged the constitutionality of Section 3 in two cases and, from there, won the first district court and first appellate court rulings against DOMA.
Bonauto scored a major marriage victory well before that. In 1999, she and two co-counsels won a case in Vermont that resulted in the country’s first civil union law, a step toward full marriage rights. Now 19 states, Vermont included, allow same-sex marriages, and courts have been striking down state marriage bans. Still, 31 states have laws or constitutional amendments that ban the marriages, according to Freedom to Marry, a marriage rights organization that tracks the numbers. The patchwork of state laws is unworkable, Bonauto says, and the Supreme Court needs to decide the issue. She anticipates that could happen as early as 2015. She won’t speculate about the decision but professes faith in the system.
“I really do believe that in this nation, overall, there is this ethos around liberty and justice for all,” she said recently. “And I do think — as Justice Ginsberg has said — that the story of our Constitution is the story of extending constitutional rights and protections to those who were once ignored or excluded. I do believe there is this journey that has happened in the U.S., and it keeps happening for different people at different times.”
It is happening now for gay Americans in large part because of Bonauto. She is a “giant” in the marriage rights movement, says attorney Evan Wolfson, himself a movement leader and founder and president of Freedom to Marry. Wolfson credits Bonauto with laying the foundation for the Supreme Court DOMA victory. She also spearheaded the friend of the court work for the case. To Wolfson, Bonauto is “the lawyer’s lawyer who, more than any other person, shaped the legal defense of DOMA.” She continues to coordinate friend of the court efforts, lending a hand with DOMA cases around the country.
“Goodridge is probably the single most pivotal win that Mary delivered, but it’s really only still one of many,” Wolfson says. “And I would say less visible but equally commendable is Mary’s role as a thought leader and strategist in figuring out how we go to the next battle and then the next battle, whether it be mapping out the legal strategy that brought down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act or figuring out the elements of work needed to win at the ballot in Maine.”
In 2013, Bonauto was one of three to receive the first Stonewall Awards given by the American Bar Association Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. The ABA honored her for her work “on nearly every facet of the legal movement for equality under law for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals.”
Bonauto recently gave a primer on marriage rights at a Hamilton event in Washington, D.C., organized by Spectrum, the College’s LGBT alumni organization. Equipped with maps, numbers and insights, Bonauto walked through the history with little emphasis on her own role. She is a petite woman with a quiet voice and intense presence; when she spoke, every word seemed important. Bonauto pointed out that LGBT people face far more civil rights issues than marriage equality. She focused on facts, praised the courage of her clients and noted that opponents of same-sex marriage have the right to their views, even though she thinks they are wrong. “It’s a free country,” she says.
Among those gathered to hear Bonauto was Horwitz, who was there to meet the woman whose career she has followed. Horwitz, who is working on a sociology doctorate at the University of Maryland, says Bonauto was just what she expected: incredibly smart with the right balance of passion and practicality.
Bonauto grew up in Newburgh, N.Y., and lives in Maine with her spouse and twin daughters. She is married to Jennifer Wriggins, a professor at the University of Maine Law School. “Though it may get lost because of how formidable a lawyer and leader she is, Mary is also a warm friend, a wonderful mother, a partner in a very long-standing marriage and, really, a beloved person,” says Wolfson, who has worked with Bonauto frequently throughout the years.
At Hamilton, she majored in comparative literature and history. Nancy Rabinowitz, professor of comparative literature, was an important mentor to Bonauto. “I went to college thinking I would never take one of those dead languages,” Bonauto says, “and in my first year, my first semester, I took a course with her where we read some of the ancient Greek tragedies. I was captivated by them.” She credits Rabinowitz and Hamilton for encouraging her intellectual exploration. Rabinowitz says Bonauto was an extraordinary student. “In class Mary was dazzling in her ability to put things together and ask the hard questions. She has a mind that grasps the details and the big picture at the same time. She challenged her teachers to ask themselves what our classes meant to our students,” she says. She also remembers Bonauto as an activist. Bonauto, who was coordinator of the Women’s Center for a time, graduated Phi Beta Kappa and went on to earn a law degree from Northeastern School of Law.
In 1990, she went to work at GLAD. A few days into the job, Bonauto took her first call about marriage, from a lesbian couple in Western Massachusetts. She was on their side but couldn’t see taking on the marriage issue when people were being fired for being gay. The time wasn’t right. Bonauto’s approach was to “think about how to build structures of equality, sort of brick by brick.”
She said yes to her first marriage case in 1997 on behalf of a couple in Vermont, and that action led to the nation’s first civil union law. By the time Bonauto took that case, there had been two major developments. In 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court “shocked everyone,” she says, by finding that the state ban on same-sex marriage appeared constitutional. (It would be 20 years before same-sex couples could marry in Hawaii.) And in 1996, Congress had passed the Defense of Marriage Act.
Bonauto and GLAD went up against DOMA and the government on behalf of couples and widowers in Massachusetts in 2009 and 2010, and eventually wracked up the historic lower-court wins. DOMA Section 3 was destined to be decided by the Supreme Court, and Bonauto’s cases were possible contenders for the court to hear. Instead, it went with Windsor v. the U.S., and in June 2013, the court struck down Section 3. Windsor counsel Roberta Kaplan acknowledged Bonauto’s contribution to the victory in The New York Times. “No gay person in this country would be married without Mary Bonauto,” she said. In the same story, former U.S. Congressman Barney Frank, who is gay, called her “our Thurgood Marshall.”
To Hamilton alumni who support marriage equality, Bonauto is an inspiration and a reason to feel pride in their alma mater. John Hadity ’83, who currently serves as president of the Alumni Association, has followed his classmate’s career since she joined GLAD. He sends her thank-you notes. “She’s a rock star to me, you know? An absolute rock star,” he says. At the Spectrum event, Scott Brinitzer ’85 thanked Bonauto for her willingness to fight the marriage battle and for “how you’ve changed our opinion of what is possible for our lives as gay people.”
Ask Bonauto about her most significant accomplishment and she gives a step-by-step response. “It’s really cumulative,” she says. “Although many people would be quick to single out the marriage work or the DOMA work because, clearly, it literally affects so many people, I always am cognizant of the fact that we could not have brought marriages cases and won them, or challenged DOMA, unless people could come to see that gay people share common humanity with everyone else, and that discrimination is wrong. And so I think about a lot of the early work that I did that tried to address violence directed at gay people and job discrimination as equally important in solidifying gay people in same-sex families as deserving of respect.”
With the prospect of marriage rights being resolved in the foreseeable future, Bonauto is excited to think about diving into other pressing issues. There are plenty: job discrimination, bullying of LGBT youth, an epidemic of LGBT youth homelessness. Civil rights work, it seems, is a given for Bonauto. “I’m passionate about it and always will be,” she says.
June 26, 2013 — U.S. Supreme Court overturns Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act and issues a ruling related to Proposition 8 that restores same-sex marriage in California
Nov. 6, 2012 — Voters approve measures supportive of same-sex marriage in all four states that had them on the ballot: Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington
May 31, 2012 — U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals finds the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional in two cases, Gill v. Office of Personnel Management and Massachusetts v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
May 9, 2012 — President Barack Obama becomes the first sitting U.S. president to announce support for same-sex marriage
Aug. 11, 2010 — CNN releases the first national poll that shows a majority of Americans believe same-sex couples should have the right to marry
Sept. 6, 2005 — California legislature becomes the first to pass a freedom to marry bill, which is vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
May 17, 2004 — Massachusetts becomes the first state to allow same-sex marriage
Nov. 18, 2003 — Massachusetts Supreme Court rules same-sex marriage is legal under the state constitution
Dec. 20, 1999 — Vermont Supreme Court rules that same-sex couples are entitled to the same benefits and protections as married couples
Sept. 21,1996 — President Bill Clinton signs the Defense of Marriage Act into law