“The abiding purpose of the 14th Amendment is to preclude relegating classes of persons to 2nd-tier status. Yet that is exactly what the state laws have done. The question of ‘who decides’ is not about the Court versus the States. It is whether the individual makes the choice to marry or the government.”
Civil Rights Project Director for GLAD
Litigator of numerous ground-breaking civil rights cases
Oralist in the U.S. S. C. case Obergefell v. Hodges, establishing the freedom to marry for same-sex couples nationwide
Policy advocate on juvenile justice, criminal justice, and child and family-related issues
Recipient of many awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship
Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School
In 2013, lawyer Roberta Kaplan stated, “no gay person in this country would be married without Mary Bonauto.” Lawyer, civil rights activist, and policy advocate, Mary L. Bonauto has been the Civil Rights Project Director at GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) since 1990. She was one of three attorneys who argued before the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark civil rights case which established the freedom for same-sex couples to marry. “My job in a big sense is about trying to eliminate double standards in the law and make sure everybody’s on the same playing field and we get equal justice under law,” Bonauto stated.
Bonauto was born in Newburgh, New York in 1961 and attended Hamilton College, where she experienced harassment after coming out. She decided her mission was to make life better for others and went on to Northeastern University School of Law. In 1987, Bonauto began practicing law in Maine, where she was one of three openly gay private practice lawyers in the state. After working at MittelAsen LLC, a firm with a reputation for pursuing social justice cases, in 1989 she accepted a position at GLAD in Boston. After just a week, a gay couple presented her with the idea to sue to get married; she declined. Bonauto felt the timing was not right in the United States and focused her early efforts on other forms of sex-based discrimination before working on marriage equality.
Bonauto has worked on policy issues including anti-LGBTQIA+ discrimination, juvenile justice reform, criminal justice, child welfare systems, parentage protections, and conversion therapy bans. Conversion therapy is a range of psuedo-scientific practices that attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity and has been banned in the United States in 20 states, 2 territories, and 100 municipalities. It has been successfully banned in all six states that comprise New England, all states in which Bonauto has litigated and lobbied.
With co-counsel, Bonauto has secured rights for families and their kids, including court victories for same-sex couples to serve as co-guardians, adopt jointly, and secure respect for their out-of-state marriages.
She has also helped champion several marriage equality victories, using each victory to build on the next. Beginning with state cases to support incremental change for marriage freedom in 1999, Bonauto served as co-counsel in Baker v. Vermont, the case that mandated the country’s first civil unions allowing same-sex couples to receive the legal benefits of marriage, while being denied the explicit term.
In 2003, she served as lead counsel in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health in Masschussetts’ highest court, where she argued civil unions would not be sufficient and that there is no “separating the word ‘marriage’ from the protections it provides. The reason for that is that one of the most important protections of marriage is the word, because the word is what conveys the status that everyone understands as the ultimate expression of love and commitment.”
This historic case made Massachusetts the first state to legalize marriage for sex-same couples. In 2007, Bonauto went on to serve as co-counsel in the Connecticut Supreme Court’s marriage case, Kerrigan v. Commission of Public Health, the third ruling in the United States to legalize same-sex marriage. Even at this point, it is safe to say that Bonauto had accomplished her pursuit to make life better for others, but she was nowhere near finished.
Next, Bonauto led GLAD’s challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in the first federal rulings that found DOMA unconstitutional. The 1996 federal law defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman and allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages granted in other states.
Former Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank, the first openly gay U.S. congress-person, called Bonauto “…a first-rate lawyer and a first-rate strategist.” He compared Bonauto to Thurgood Marshall, lawyer and civil rights activist who successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education and went on to serve as the first African American justice on the Supreme Court. In September 2014, Bonauto was named a MacArthur Fellow for “breaking down legal barriers based on sexual orientation.” She acknowledges the magnitude of work done before and alongside her, including that carried out by the plaintiffs she has represented, saying, “this movement has involved so many people for so many decades that I feel a completely inadequate stand-in for all of those millions of people, for all they have done.”
In 2015, while serving on the legal team in Michigan’s marriage case DeBoer v. Snyder, Bonauto was asked to become the Supreme Court oralist in Obergefell v. Hodges. Before Obergefell, same-sex marriage had been established in 36 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam. On June 26, the Supreme Court ruled that marriage is a fundamental right guaranteed to same-sex couples in all states.
Like Justice Marshall’s long-term strategy, Bonauto has worked tirelessly over the course of several decades to protect the rights of all people to freely express their sexual orientation and gender identity. Today, she lectures at Harvard Law School, serves on the advisory board for the American Constitution Society, and has served as co-chair of the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Committee of the American Bar Association. Bonauto lives in Portland with her partner Jennifer Wriggins, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law, and their twin daughters.
-authored by Katherine Kenny
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