Gay marriage legal strategist is taking on national role

Mary Bonauto led Mass. fight. Mary Bonauto led Mass. fight.
By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / February 28, 2011

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When Mary Bonauto first filed suit a decade ago seeking to legalize gay marriage in Massachusetts, she weathered criticism from two fronts: Conservatives said she was end-running public opinion, and some backers feared her effort was not only a long shot, but one that, if successful, could spark a backlash.

Bonauto has not won over all of her critics. But last week marked another in a growing list of pivotal moments that many in the gay rights community are celebrating as a vindication of that strategy. President Obama said he believes that a law barring federal recognition of gay marriage is unconstitutional.

For more than 20 years, Bonauto, now 49, has been a fixture of the Massachusetts gay rights crusade. Her work on behalf of the Boston-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders has garnered her a reputation as the region’s most influential gay rights lawyer.

But as her successes expand onto a national stage, they also place her among the most significant activists in the country.

Not only did Bonauto argue the gay marriage case in Massachusetts; she worked on a team that won the right to legalize civil unions in Vermont. And she is the co-lead counsel on two cases challenging the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that the Obama administration weighed in on last week.

It will be up to the courts to make a final determination on whether the law is, in fact, constitutional, but Obama’s decision was still a milestone for Bonauto and others in the movement.

“I certainly never counted on such a moment,’’ Bonauto said of the president’s policy shift.

When she joined GLAD in 1990, swaying national policy was a distant goal. Back then, the battles came on an entirely different scale.

“People thought it shocking that you could actually sue an employer for firing a ‘fag,’ ’’ she said, using the epithet to show society’s evolution since that time.

But expanding the definition of gay rights has hardly been accidental. Bonauto and others say they have followed a methodical arc, the result of two decades of groundwork that established the legal underpinnings to give judges the precedent to define gay marriage as a civil right.

“That shift didn’t happen by itself,’’ said Tobias B. Wolff, an informal adviser to Obama on gay rights issues who teaches law at the University of Pennsylvania.

He said Bonauto is among a handful of lawyers in the inner circle of gay rights advocates, one with a rare gift to make her case in public, using measured tones rather than heated rhetoric.

That position has made Bonauto not only an important legal strategist, but also a political tactician.

“There were a lot of strategic considerations and she kept plugging,’’ said Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, who called Obama’s declaration last week “the beginning of the end’’ of the 1996 federal law that defines marriage as a bond between one man and one woman.

Gay marriage opponent Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said that while he vehemently disagrees with Bonauto, he considers her a consummate professional and said the two have been cordial when they have met face-to-face.

Her strategy, he said, has relied on carefully selecting “the low-hanging fruit in Massachusetts and Vermont’’ to file lawsuits, and on outspending his group.

He notes that when voters have had an opportunity to weigh in, gay marriage has been defeated every time.

“They’ve never succeeded in a popular referendum. They have only succeeded in a handful of radical courts,’’ Mineau said.

Bonauto, not surprisingly, differs, calling same-sex marriage a fundamental civil rights issue.

She spent her early years with GLAD arguing cases related to workplace discrimination issues. Massachusetts was the second state to enact such protections for gays and lesbians.

Though GLAD lost several of its discrimination cases, it won enough to enforce the state law, and Bonauto then began focusing on cases involving the rights of gay families. That included establishing the rights of nonbiological parents who participate in raising children with their partners.

It was clear, however, that gay couples would not get full familial rights unless they could legally marry, she said, recounting the story of a prep school coach who lost her right to live with her partner as a residential counselor because they were not married.

“This is not a chess game. This is about real people,’’ she said. “Absent marriage, these families were not going to be protected as the families that they were.’’

In 1999, Bonauto was one of three lawyers who won the Vermont case that led to the nation’s first civil unions law there. She was the lead counsel in the Massachusetts case, Goodridge versus Department of Public Health, that made Massachusetts the first state to allow gay marriage.

Reflecting on that Supreme Judicial Court decision last week, Governor Deval Patrick argued that it did more than change the law in Massachusetts; it altered the public discourse.

“When the SJC issued decisions here in the Goodridge case, it turns out the sky didn’t fall,’’ he said. “The ground didn’t open up, and mostly it was about keeping the government out of personal, intimate decisions. And that’s something I think a whole lot of people across the political spectrum can understand.’’

In his memo explaining the Obama administration’s decision, US Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. also cited a shift in the legal landscape that has happened in the 15 years since the Defense of Marriage Act passed.

The president’s change in position does not mean Bonauto’s work is done. In addition to her continued work on challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act, there are personal battles to wage.

Bonauto lives in Portland, Maine, with her partner of 23 years, Jennifer Wriggins, a law professor, and 9-year-old twin girls. The couple married in Massachusetts in 2008, but, she notes, “I live in a state where my marriage is legally void.’’

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly labeled the lawsuit in the Massachusetts gay marriage ruling as "Goodrich vs. Department of Public Health." The story has been corrected to say "Goodridge vs. Department of Public Health."

Noah Bierman can be reached at