The Road to Equality
Mary Bonauto fights for love and marriage
Published in 2006 Massachusetts Super Lawyers magazine
on October 23, 2006
Updated on January 23, 2017
“Thank you, GLAD — Just married after 19 years,” reads the note in the lobby of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), signed by a same-sex couple and their two children. It’s just one of many handwritten inscriptions that surround a group photo taken in May 2005, in celebration of the one-year anniversary of legal samesex marriage in Massachusetts.
Mary Bonauto, GLAD’s Civil Rights Project Director, was the lead counsel in Hillary Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, in which the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that same-sex couples had the right to marry and gave the state Legislature 180 days to “take any steps necessary,” says Bonauto. It’s a result that no other lawyer in the country has been able to replicate — not for lack of trying.
“Just the other day, someone asked me, ‘Haven’t you people learned that you shouldn’t be litigating this anymore?’” Bonauto says in GLAD’s eighth-floor conference room, one week after the Washington state high court refused to recognize same-sex marriage. “No, we haven’t learned that. We have never advocated full-scale litigation –– on this issue or anything else. But I think you can never give up on the courts as articulating and bringing to life those basic principles of fairness.”
Bonauto, a comparative literature major in college, believes in the power of people’s stories. Her own starts in Newburgh, N.Y., 60 miles north of Manhattan. A child of Italian immigrants who believed in the transformative power of education, she knew she wanted to be a lawyer by the time she attended Hamilton, a small liberal arts college in upstate New York.
“There is just something about me –– and I don’t know where it comes from, but it has always been true –– that I’m always rooting for the little guy,” Bonauto says. “I’m always thinking about how to make the world more fair and help people in their lives.”
As a law student at Northeastern, Bonauto served as a court advocate at a battered women’s shelter, providing legal support for people seeking orders of protection. She also did legal research for the law firm Ward & Lund. The Ward was John Ward, who founded GLAD in 1978 in response to a sting operation at the Boston Public Library. There, she handled her first gay-related case, involving the separation of a couple who spent years restoring properties in the South End. “One of them had provided all the capital and the other had provided all the sweat equity,” Bonauto says. “And there was no law to equitably divide their assets. The question was: Was it possible to provide any kind of equity to the person who had provided all the labor? And the answer eventually was yes, but I had to think about what legal theories one might use.”
After graduation, she took a position at a firm in Portland, Maine, with a general civil litigation practice. “It turned out to be a terrific launching pad for me –– I’m still grateful to those folks,” says Bonauto, who still lives in Portland. The firm had a generous volunteer policy, so she signed up with the Volunteer Lawyers Project and contacted the Maine Civil Liberties Union. It was the late 1980s, and Bonauto was soon handling HIV discrimination cases. “I represented some of the first people with HIV in Maine,” she says. “And it was fairly rank discrimination, like a ‘you have this disease, you’re fired’ type of thing.”
At work, Bonauto was open about her sexual orientation. “When I started, some of the secretaries were trying to set me up with a male date, so I realized I had to say something,” she says. “The [office manager] was giving me a ride to work one day, and I told her.” The woman was shocked. “She nearly drove off the road. But it was okay,” Bonauto says. “We did survive.” Shortly after moving to Portland, Bonauto met Jennifer Wriggins, the woman she has been with for nearly two decades and with whom she now is a parent to twin 4-year-old girls.
As one of the few openly gay attorneys in Maine, Bonauto was sought out by the GLBT community for business cases and other civil or transactional issues. She also became the go-to person for emergencies. “At that time, with AIDS, you could suddenly develop an opportunistic infection and be on your deathbed,” Bonauto says. “So I would get calls that someone was in Maine Medical Center and they didn’t have a will. And I would rush over there and try to figure out, is this person even competent to do a will?”
During her time in Maine, Bonauto became convinced of the need for legal protections for partners and families. “I received a fair number of calls from people whose partners had just died, and they were calling me from a pay phone. I can remember more than one situation where people were sobbing on the phone because they were not even allowed to go back into the home they had shared with the deceased, or somebody was moving furniture out of the place. And the family, of course, had all the legal rights. I found that searing.”
In 1989, Massachusetts became the second state to enact a non-discrimination law for sexual orientation. Bonauto applied to GLAD and was hired as its second staff attorney to handle cases related to the new law. But she had bigger plans: “In Maine, I was doing the best I could to help people with discrimination that was structural. When I came to GLAD, I tried to change the structures,” Bonauto says.
Although GLAD had already won some important victories, the road ahead was not easy. “When I came to Massachusetts in March of 1990, it was a very different world,” Bonauto says. “[The antidiscrimination] law looked like it was going to be repealed. Hate crimes had been rising every year. The police were not our friends. There was zero respect for families. Domestic partnership had just been invented in California, in 1986 in Berkeley, but nobody had really heard of it. It was just an entirely different landscape.”
Though just two and a half years out of law school, Bonauto was determined to send a message that discrimination based on sexual orientation was illegal –– and more important, that it was just wrong.
“I think the thing GLAD has going for it is that we are arguing on the side of fairness,” Bonauto says. “What we are saying is: equal justice under the law. No double standards. And even though we are always out-resourced, what keeps us competitive is that we’re fighting for fairness.”
Over the next decade, the GLAD staff witnessed a sea change in GLBT issues –– due partly to GLAD’s work but also to changes in the culture at large. For years, they turned down requests for marriage cases. But when Bonauto and two Vermont co-counsel won a case that led to civil unions in Vermont, she and her colleagues began to believe that it was time to address the marriage issue in Massachusetts.
Although the Goodridge case brought GLAD more publicity –– and opposition –– than it had ever encountered, the organization has always seen marriage as just one point along a path to equal treatment under the law. This is evident in the arguments used in Goodridge: Any fair reading of the state Constitution would show that marriage was already extended to same-sex couples. Says Gary Buseck, GLAD’s legal director: “At some point, you just have to call the question on whether gay and lesbian citizens are citizens and fully treated that way.”
For Bonauto, the Vermont litigation had been a useful practice run: “We knew that people needed to understand the vulnerabilities that gay people experience from being denied marriage,” she says. “And that we would need to do a bang-up job on the law. And that we would have more opposition than we could imagine.”
Bonauto’s colleague Ben Klein witnessed the effort firsthand: “I think the Goodridge case was the most intense amount of work I’ve seen any organization do,” he says, recalling the 100-page briefings. “It was a scale of magnitude that was just so much greater than any previous gay rights litigation, both because of the intense amount of legal work –– on the legal theories, on the constitutional law –– but also because we needed to work on changing public opinion by telling people’s stories.”
The opposition was monumental. Says Klein: “There were right-wing groups filing lawsuits almost weekly in a last-ditch effort to stop [us]. … May 17 was a Monday, and the preceding Thursday and Friday, we had cases that we were working on to stop these last-ditch efforts in about three or four different courts, simultaneously, including the U.S. Supreme Court.”
While same-sex couples today have the right to marry in Massachusetts –– at least for now –– Bonauto and others at GLAD point to many more milestones on the road to full equality: an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation or HIV status; legal protections for transgendered individuals; full federal protections for married couples.
Bonauto and her colleagues are optimistic. “We’re all in the middle of an adjustment process,” Bonauto says, “because in the end I feel like the principles of fairness are what they are, but our understanding and our view of what is fair and just changes over time. And, you know, gay people are now, in Massachusetts at least, included within the definition of citizen and having common humanity with others. That’s not true everywhere.”