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Bonauto, Mary (b. 1961)  
 
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A leading American lawyer, Mary Bonauto has served as the civil rights project director at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) for more than two decades. In that capacity, she has won major rulings that have brought the promise of equal rights nearer to reality in the lives of glbtq citizens. She is widely regarded as among the country's best litigators in the cause of marriage equality.

Bonauto was born on June 8, 1961 into a Roman Catholic family of modest means in Newburgh, New York. The only daughter of a pharmacist and a teacher, she grew up with three brothers.

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When Bonauto was growing up and attending public schools, Newburgh was a depressed factory town riven by racial and class divisions. A good athlete who played tennis, basketball, softball, and volleyball, she had the opportunity to mingle with a wide variety of individuals. This interaction led her to distrust stereotypes of all kinds.

Bonauto received her undergraduate education at Hamilton College, where she majored in history and comparative literature. There she also came to terms with her lesbianism, though she did not come out to her parents until she entered law school at Northeastern University in 1984.

Bonauto's acceptance of her homosexuality caused her to abandon the Roman Catholic Church, though she says she is still guided by the Catholic values that helped form her commitment to social justice.

Following her graduation from law school, Bonauto joined a small law firm in Portland, Maine. She was one of only three openly gay lawyers in private practice in the state.

She soon met and fell in love with Jennifer Wriggens, who became her life partner (and since 2008, her spouse). Wriggens is now a professor at the University of Maine School of Law.

The law firm that Bonauto worked at in Portland, Mittel Asen LLC, had a reputation for pursuing social justice. Most of the attorneys who worked at the firm were former legal services lawyers. There she handled a wide variety of cases, from commercial transactions to custody disputes. As she became known in the gay and lesbian community, she began to attract business to the firm.

In 1989, Bonauto accepted a job with GLAD, and she and Wriggens moved for a while to Boston.

Massachusetts had recently passed a law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, housing, and public accommodations. It was Bonauto's job to help enforce the new law.

She was soon involved in litigation, lobbying, and public education throughout the six New England states that GLAD principally serves.

After her initial focus on enforcing the anti-discrimination law, Bonauto then concentrated on cases involving gay and lesbian families, including cases to establish the rights of non-biological parents who participate in raising children with their partners.

Bonauto told New York Times reporter David Garrow in 2004 that her work for GLAD in the early 1990s taught her ''how to build, brick by brick, protections for gay folks.''

GLAD's policy at the time was not to accept cases involving same-sex marriage because the likelihood of prevailing seemed so slim. However, Bonauto was deeply cognizant that many of the cases that she worked on--child custody and adoption, health-benefits coverage, inheritance, and Social Security survivor benefits--would be easily solved if same-sex couples enjoyed the legal protections and benefits of marriage.

Some of the cases she received then, Bonauto told Garrow, are ''seared into my soul'' because they came from ''people who are calling me sobbing from a pay phone because their partner of 24 years has just died and the so-called family is in the house cleaning it out.''

''I would have loved to have been married myself and would have loved to have filed a marriage case,'' she reminisced, but at the time pursuing marriage equality seemed at best quixotic.

However, she soon encountered Evan Wolfson, who was then working for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund (and is now president of Freedom to Marry). He was the most articulate proponent of the idea that marriage equality should be the glbtq movement's top priority. He soon convinced her that "marriage was something that needed to be fought for in the courts.''

The decision by the Hawaii Supreme Court in Baehr v. Lewin in 1993, a marriage challenge for which Wolfson served as co-counsel, was also crucial in convincing her that marriage equality might be secured in the courts. The Hawaii Supreme Court held that denying same-sex couples marriage licenses would violate the state's equal rights amendment unless the state could show a compelling interest. It returned the case to the trial court for a hearing to allow the state to present evidence of a compelling interest.

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Mary L. Bonauto at the 2010 Spirit of Justice dinner.
  
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