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social sciences

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Bonauto, Mary (b. 1961)  
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Bonauto is motivated by her conviction that her work matters not just theoretically but in the lives of real people. "This is not a chess game," she insists. Not surprisingly, when talking about her cases, she characteristically spotlights the stories of those affected by the cases.

As she recently told reporter Trevor Maxwell, "I'm dealing with people who have real problems, who are dealing with discrimination. If anyone should be recognized for the court rulings, it should be the plaintiffs and the judges, not the lawyers."

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In a profile on her published by the Northeastern University School of Law, she said, "What keeps me going is that we are making progress. In 2003, I was lead counsel in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the first case to end marriage discrimination against same-sex couples in the United States. That case broke a historic barrier and forever changed the standard by which future efforts to treat lesbian and gay citizens will be judged. Today, 18 states have non-discrimination laws, and I hope the day for a federal non-discrimination law is at hand. I want to help take this movement over the finish line so that there is a single standard of justice in this country regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity."

In another interview, she said, "I do this work because I believe in the bedrock American promise of liberty and justice for all. The story of America is that we keep trying to live up to that promise, embracing as full citizens people who were once outsiders."

Bonauto's advocacy for gay rights has earned her a number of awards. In 2005, she received an honorary degree from Hamilton College. In the citation she was lauded for her "tenacity of purpose" and for the success of her work to extend "for the first time all the legal benefits of marriage to same-sex couples in the form of civil unions in Vermont, and to end the exclusion of such couples from civil marriage in Massachusetts."

In 2010, Bonauto received Yale University's Brudner Award, "which is awarded annually to an accomplished scholar or activist whose work has made significant contributions to the understanding of LGBT issues or furthered the tolerance of LGBT people."

In addition, Bonauto has been described as the Thurgood Marshall of the marriage equality movement. As David Garrow noted in 2004, "Bonauto's patient, quietly passionate yet self-effacing advocacy may have as far-reaching an effect on America as did that of Thurgood Marshall."

Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, told Garrow that ''Massachusetts has had the success it did because of Mary Bonauto.'' Beth Robinson added that while the marriage-equality movement ''doesn't stand on the shoulders of any one person,'' there is no doubt that ''the one individual person who's done the most for marriage is Mary.''

Arthur Leonard, a professor at New York Law School, described Bonauto as "one of the dynamos in the gay rights movement." He added, "She goes out there and wins these impossible-to-win cases."

Bonauto herself disavows the title of "architect" of marriage equality, saying "I'm happy to be a bricklayer" in the movement.

In 2011, Bonauto was named one of the "50 Most Powerful Women in Boston" by Boston Magazine.

Despite the accolade, Bonauto, although she spends a lot of time in Boston, lives in Portland with Wriggens and their twin daughters. Bonauto gave birth to the twins while she was litigating Goodridge.

Ironically, Bonauto and Wriggens were not able to marry in Massachusetts immediately after the state achieved marriage equality. Then Governor Romney invoked a largely forgotten 1913 law that restricted marriage to Massachusetts residents.

The couple were finally able to marry in Massachusetts in 2008, but, Bonauto noted wryly at the time that, "I live in a state where my marriage is legally void.''

However, in November 2012, the voters of Maine ratified marriage equality at the polls, thanks in part to Bonauto's hard work as lobbyist and litigator.

As the United States Supreme Court heard arguments about the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act on March 26 and 27, 2013, Mary Bonauto was not one of the attorneys answering questions or making arguments. She was, rather, in the audience. Still, her presence was palpable as one of the principal architects of the legal strategy designed to invalidate the pernicious laws that discriminate against same-sex couples. If the Court declares DOMA and Proposition 8 unconstitutional, Mary Bonauto will certainly deserve part of the credit.

Claude J. Summers

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social sciences >> ACLU LGBT & AIDS Project

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social sciences >> Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)

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social sciences >> Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD)

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social sciences >> National Center for Lesbian Rights

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Bierman, Noah. "Gay Marriage Legal Strategist Is Taking on National Role." (February 28, 2011):

Bonauto, Mary. "Pathways: Mary Bonauto '87." Northeastern University School of Law Pathways (2012):

Garrow, David J. "Toward a More Perfect Union." New York Times Magazine (May 9, 2004):

Goodnough, Abby. "Maine Governor Signs Same-Sex Marriage Bill." New York Times (May 6, 2009):

_____ and John Schwartz. "Judge Topples U.S. Rejection of Gay Unions." New York Times (July 8, 2010):

Kuhr, Fred. "Boston Legal Eagle." The Advocate (January 18, 2005):

Maxwell, Trevor. "Mainer Challenging U.S. Defense of Marriage Act." Maine Sunday Telegram (October 14, 2012):

Stewart, Joan Hinde. "Hamilton College Honorary Degree Presented to Mary Bonauto '83." Commencement (2005):


    Citation Information
    Author: Summers, Claude J.  
    Entry Title: Bonauto, Mary  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2012  
    Date Last Updated April 29, 2013  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2012 glbtq, Inc.  


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