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social sciences

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Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD)  
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GLAD's strategy in achieving marriage equality was devised and executed by Mary Bonauto, director of the organization's Civil Rights Project. David J. Garrow has compared Bonauto to Thurgood Marshall, the legendary head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund who argued Brown v. Board of Education, which found school racial segregation unconstitutional. Crediting Bonauto with "patient, quietly passionate yet self-effacing advocacy [that] may have as far-reaching an effect on America as did that of Thurgood Marshall," Garrow sees the Massachusetts landmark marriage decision as ushering in a new social era.

Fearful that a negative ruling might establish a damaging precedent that would set back the movement for equality, Bonauto resisted repeated pleas that she sue for marriage rights soon after she joined GLAD in 1990. In 1997, however, she agreed to file the suit that would result in Baker et al. v. State of Vermont.

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The decision in Baker was, in Bonauto's words, "a legal and cultural milestone. For the first time a state supreme court has recognized that gay couples exist and have the same needs for legal protections as other couples." To her disappointment, however, the Vermont Supreme Court left it to the state legislature to decide whether those benefits be conferred through marriage or a parallel institution, "civil unions," in which the legal benefits of matrimony were extended to same-sex couples but the crucial term "marriage" withheld.

When arguing the Goodridge case in Massachusetts, Bonauto beseeched the seven justices of the Supreme Judicial Court not to follow the Vermont precedent, for "when it comes to marriage," she argued, "there really is no such thing as separating the word 'marriage' from the protections it provides. The reason for that is that one of the most important protections is the word, because the word is what conveys the status that everyone understands as the ultimate expression of love and commitment." To create a separate system for gay people, she told the justices, "would essentially be branding gay people and our relationships as unworthy of this civil institution of marriage."

Four of the justices agreed, and marriage equality has become a reality in Massachusetts. The impact of that reality on gay people in the state, Bonauto has observed, is immeasurable. "It has taken my breath away," she said soon after the ruling, "to have so many people come up to me and say: 'I had no idea all the ways in which I had incorporated my second-class-citizen status and didn't even know it. For the first time I actually realize I am a full and equal citizen, and I didn't even realize all the accommodations I had been making.' That, I think, is what is transformative."

More practically, the achievement of marriage equality in Massachusetts and civil unions in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut means that in those states many of the legal difficulties typically faced by gay and lesbian couples--including child custody and adoption, health-care benefits, and inheritance--are automatically solved by the protections conferred by marriage and civil union.

United States Supreme Court Cases

In 1995, GLAD founder John Ward became the first openly gay attorney to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court. Representing the Irish-American Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Group of Boston (GLIB), which had been excluded from marching under its own banner in Boston's annual St. Patrick's Day Parade, Ward framed the dispute between GLIB and the organizers of the parade (the South Boston Allied Veterans Council) as a public accommodations issue.

The parade, Ward argued, was an open recreational event, taking place on the public streets and boardwalks of Boston, and the defendants had discriminated against GLIB in violation of the Massachusetts public accommodations law and the Constitution's First Amendment by excluding it from this public event.

Although Ward's approach was successful at the state level, it did not prevail at the federal level. In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court reversed the findings of the state courts and ruled on narrow First Amendment grounds that the Veterans group had a right to exclude GLIB from the parade.

Justice Souter framed the controversy this way: "The issue in this case is whether Massachusetts may require private citizens who organize a parade to include among the marchers a group imparting a message the organizers do not wish to convey. We hold that such a mandate violates the First Amendment."

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