After the travesty of Jo Becker’s alleged history of the marriage equality movement, and after Chad Griffin’s PR attempt to portray himself as Rosa Parks, and after Ted Olson and David Boies’ grandiloquent credit-hogging in their recent book, it comes as something of a massive relief to see one of the true architects of marriage equality finally getting her due. Mary Bonauto was fighting for gay marriage rights as a lawyer and organizer when very few others were. She started at the state level – because that’s where civil marriage is rooted in American politics and law. And she critically understood that it was vital to get a foothold somewhere, to prove we were not just fringe weirdos, and she saw Massachusetts and New England as the most favorable terrain.
And they were. One aspect of marriage equality in America that is sometimes missed is the role New England played. The gay and lesbian community in Boston in the 1980s and 1990s was remarkably advanced and organized. It was a community I was immensely lucky to grow up in. The self-confidence and self-esteem that this community helped spawn in its members broke through the fear and doubt and squabbling that cursed us elsewhere. It was a gay community big enough to make a splash, but small enough not to splinter. And Mary was a central component of that with her remarkably successful group, Gay And Lesbian Advocates And Defenders.
Let’s be clear: there would be no national surge in support of marriage equality without ten years of civil marriage equality in one state, and then several others. There would be none without Mary Bonauto.
Federalism was essential in helping us prove that, with this reform, the sky wouldn’t fall, that lives would actually be immensely improved, that families would be strengthened, and that all the scare tactics of the reactionary right were unfounded. Bonauto – along with Evan Wolfson – was absolutely integral to that strategy.
Both of them also understood that one state would not be enough, that if this issue rose up to the federal courts, it was vital that we would not merely be talking about one lone and allegedly rogue state. Bonauto made that happen. You can see her mild-mannered affect in the above video, but don’t be fooled. She was extraordinarily persistent and a ruthlessly methodical lawyer. She also helped dispel the myth that somehow marriage equality was a function of white male elitists (a charge so often leveled at me in the community at large). Of course it wasn’t. Lesbians had a huge amount at stake – especially in the safety and custody of their children and families – in ensuring that civil marriage could protect them. And lesbians – from Edie Windsor to Robbie Kaplan to Bonauto herself – were absolutely indispensable and central in this fight.
I’m in awe of Mary and the work she did. While some of us were busy writing and speaking and debating the issues, she gave us the actual empirical and legal progress that kept our arguments alive and relevant. Without her, we would be in an utterly different and darker world.
(Thumbnail image: MacArthur Foundation)