She doesn’t need an introduction. Or at least, she shouldn’t.
That’s how indisputably influential Mary Bonauto has been in the modern LGBT rights movement. Bonauto, civil rights project director at GLAD, is perhaps most widely recognized as the lead counsel in Goodridge v Dept of Public Health, the case that brought same-sex marriage to Massachusetts and ushered in an era of similar successes in other states. But her resume, and indeed her contributions, run much deeper: from litigating the case that resulted in Vermont’s first-in-the-nation civil unions (now a compromise measure, but in 1999 a significant step) to less headline-grabbing grunt work to earn protections for gay parents and advancing anti-discrimination initiatives. Her work has been widely lauded; Barney Frank once famously referred to Bonauto as, “our Thurgood Marshall.”
On Thursday, June 6, The Anti-Defamation League will honor Bonauto its Centennial Torch of Liberty Award. Rep. Joe Kennedy will present the award to Bonauto at a dinner at the John F. Kennedy Library. The choice to honor Bonauto underscores the LGBT inclusiveness of ADL efforts, and we grabbed her for a few quick words about the award, the ADL, and her thoughts on the present – and future – face of the equal rights movement.
You’ve been rightly recognized many times. What makes this ADL award unique?
I see the ADL as having parallels in terms of their history, vision and mission. They do a lot of education but they have also litigated and been true advocates for change. They started at a time when anti-Semitism was rampant, and GLAD was founded in 1978 in part because the district attorney didn’t like that gay men were publicly congregating at the BPL. I see a lot of parallels. … Second of all, this is a non-gay organization and I really appreciate the nod to me. It’s more than that, actually. It’s a partnership. ADL not only gets involved with LGBT issues as part of its core mission, but to take an award that is important award for them and acknowledge an LGBT organization – that is a real measure of their commitment.
Non-LGBT civil rights organizations have varied in how quickly they have embraced LGBT issues. To that issue, what has been your experience with the ADL?
On the local level, I can tell you that when I after I started at GLAD March of 1990 I was at a meeting with the ADL and the Greater Boston Civil Rights Coalition that was focusing on issues of violence and harassment against people based on religion. Sexual orientation was legitimately placed on the table. And I’ll tell you, it was outside of some people’s comfort zones. But that was part of the ADL, with their stature, saying: “this is important.” It legitimized the issue. … Since then they’ve continue to play a leadership role on civil rights issues from advocating for the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act to working against anti-marriage amendments. They’re talking and walking.
When you hear yourself described as the “Thurgood Marshall of the LGBT community,” how does it make you feel?
You know, I feel it’s not apt. But I do feel like GLAD has done important work, and I appreciate the recognition for GLAD. We’ve certainly have grown over the years. When I started the focus was litigation only. Now we harness the power of public education to make sure individuals know their rights. And we’re enlisting allies in delivering messages and persuading people that justice is always the right thing to do – that it goes hand in hand with American values.
Outside of marriage work, what other work – which didn’t always grab headlines – are you especially proud of?
When I started with GLAD in March of 1990, I was the first paid attorney to work on sexual orientation issues. When I started the idea of enforcing the non-discrimination law that we had in Massachusetts was extremely controversial, because there was concern it would go on the ballot and be repealed. There was a sense of vulnerability, that it was toxic and too radical. I have been so interested and inspired to see that in this region as a whole, and in much of the nation, the idea that non-discrimination based on sexual orientation is now such a widely shared value. To see that journey has been profoundly moving to me. I believe it’s on par with the whole American journey whereby you realize that other people who been kept out of circles of citizenship. In the beginning at GLAD one of my major rules was to start enforcing that nondiscrimination law to show that discrimination was real, effecting actual people and wrong. I know we played an important part in establishing the norm through cases coming out of the New England region.
In January you co-wrote a piece in the Boston Globe with ADL New England chair Jeffrey Robbins. It focused on the national rise in hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation. How did that come about?
We think this is really important, and I have to credit them [the ADL] for finding the opportunity and having us work on it with them. It was a terrific experience. The idea was to note quite rightly the persistence of anti-gay violence. And also to note something that to me is not quite right: the narrative we have going on right now about gay people and the inevitability of progress. While I support that, I support it to a point. There are still a lot of problems out there, and this violence is a great example of that. It’s one thing to have laws that protect, but how does that help if you’re unsafe in daily life? Or look at the numbers of homeless LGBT youth: what does it say when your parents have removed you from your home? That’s second-class status to put it mildly. We have non-discrimination laws in this region, but I still know people who feel it’s not safe to come out at a job. It’s true that many, many attitudes have changed since 1990. But it’s also a mistake to say it’s entirely better. It is absolutely not. What I think about is the work ahead. Even in this region, where we have achieved a certain measure of legal success for LGBT people, though there are still gaps, there is so much more to be done on a day-to-day basis to ensure we all truly have the freedoms and opportunities that the law would seem to guarantee – but can’t quite guarantee without more work.
Yet people are hopeful this supposed pace of progress could have a positive impact on the Supreme Court’s impending judgments. Can you read the tealeaves?
Again, the pace of progress: let’s look at what’s not moving forward, like the expansion of immigration reform [to include same-sex couples]. Or what’s happening in Illinois: a governor willing to sign a law and the majority support of Democrats in the house and senate, and it is still not moving. There is still a determined opposition and they are able to prey on the fears of our supporters. ... I can’t predict what the Supreme Court will do. I think my own position is clear, but my opinion doesn’t matter. It matters what nine people think on that matter. That said: if we don’t get everything we want to get, I am convinced that there are roads ahead to get there. At the same time, we should recognize it’s enormous that we are there in the Supreme Court, the final arbiter in our system, on monumental issues of equality and liberty in our most personal relationships. I am hoping for the best, but since I’m a Plan B kind of person I’m still thinking about the road ahead on this if we don’t get everything we want.
This year’s Pride theme is: “Moving Forward… Proud, Strong, United.” In what direction do we need to be moving?
We are a large nation, and only 21 state non-discrimination laws are LGBT-inclusive. We have made such progress, but there are plenty of people living states where not only is marriage forbidden - but any kind of recognition is forbidden. That is a stain. These people and their families endure a hardship and burden they shouldn’t have to bear. It was interesting to hear Justice Sotomayor ask those arguing Prop 8: apart from marriage, is there any area in which you think it would be appropriate for the government to burden same-sex couples? He said no. That is a sign of progress, though words aren’t going to carry the day. We have so much to do in terms of achieving formal equality. And in a region like this where we are further along, we have to remember that. We still have much to do about anti-discrimination laws regarding gender reassignment surgery. That has to be dealt with. That population is intensely vulnerable. Youth is intensely vulnerable. Elders are vulnerable. We have plenty to do.