Bonauto fights for gay marriage

Twenty years after beginning her career as a civil rights litigator in New England, Mary Bonauto is still fighting for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people’s equal consideration under the law.

At the James Robert Brudner ’83 Memorial Lecture Tuesday evening, Bonauto — the civil rights project director at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) — discussed the changing cultural and legal balance of LGBT rights across the country in front of an audience of about 100 students, faculty and community members. While LGBT activists have made strides toward equal rights in some areas, Bonauto said, there is still a great deal of work to be done on marriage equality.

LGBT activist Mary Bonauto spoke at Yale on Tuesday about LGBT rights.
Northeastern University
LGBT activist Mary Bonauto spoke at Yale on Tuesday about LGBT rights.

“We want to end federal double standards based on sexual orientation and the federal government’s cases against sexual marriage,” Bonauto said.

Bonauto has been involved in key legislative issues affecting LGBT rights since she started working at GLAD, a Massachusetts-based legal rights organization, in 1990. She has focused on antigay discrimination and violence, sexual freedom and securing the legal recognition of lesbian and gay families.

Bonauto stressed that there are two fundamental threats to LGBT communities — the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal protection of gay and lesbian marriage, and Proposition 8, a 2008 California ballot initiative that recognizes and validates marriage as an institution between a man and a woman.

“What justifies the federal government’s singling out of lesbian and gay marriage when in fact they are identically situated to all Americans?” Bonauto asked.

She cautioned that the recent Republican successes in the midterm elections could have a “deterrent effect” on efforts to legalize gay marriage in some states.

“We urgently need to keep marriage states we have and get more,” she said, adding that conservative activists are trying to repeal same-sex marriage in Iowa and New Hampshire.

There are five states that recognize marriage in whole or in part, Bonauto said, including Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont.

Still, she added, gay and lesbian people are denied federal marriage status and the benefits associated with it despite the fact that their marriages are legal in the eyes of these state governments.

Professor George Chauncey ’77 GRD ’89, who introduced Bonauto, called her a “brilliant legal strategist” who has “dedicated her life to the struggle of LGBT equality.” Chauncey worked with GLAD representatives to secure a donation of GLAD’s legal records for Yale’s collection in Manuscripts and Archives in Sterling Memorial Library announced this week.

Three students interviewed said they attended the talk on the recommendation of Chauncey, who teaches their “United States Lesbian and Gay History” course.

Diallo Spears ’14 said he has noticed that most coverage of gay marriage in the news focuses on progress instead of opposition. Bonauto’s lecture was a reminder that this is not always the case, he said.

“When she said that some states weren’t providing rights to couples that were married, I was really shocked,” Spears said.

Giuliana Berry ’14, another student in Chauncey’s class, said some of the antigay claims Bonauto discussed were unexpected. She said she was “intrigued” by the argument that gays harass straight people and infringe on their rights.

Bonauto is the 12th winner of the James Robert Brudner Memorial Prize, awarded for scholarship and activism on gay and lesbian issues. Chauncey was the first winner of the Brudner Prize in 2000.


  • rr22

    three cheers for her.

  • RexMottram08

    Rejected by the voters everywhere.

  • yalie13

    You know, there’s a real compromising solution to this whole issue that I’m surprised has not entered the public debate.

    Why don’t you call all “marriages” (heterosexual or homosexual) “civil unions” in all legal documents and have identical rights and laws associated with every single “civil union”. That way, you are free to call a homosexual or heterosexual union a civil union or a marriage and the government plays no role in this.

    People (gay or straight) who religiously or culturally don’t feel comfortable calling anything but a union between a man and a woman a “marriage” would have the freedom not to call a homosexual union a “marriage”, and people who consider both heterosexual and homosexual unions to be “marriages” will have the freedom to call those unions “marriages”.

    In other words, there are some who religiously (or for whatever other reason, but it’s principally cultural) believe a marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman and there are others who disagree with that viewpoint. Both cultural viewpoints should be respected, and to force either viewpoint from a governmental, legislative perspective would be unfair. The importance is that both unions are treated equally in every single way. Therefore, the government should identify all unions as “civil unions” and after that it’s up to you.

  • Standards

    Rex: because everyone knows putting rights up to a vote is a great way to avoid prejudice!

  • The Anti-Yale

    Why don’t you call all “marriages” (heterosexual or homosexual) “civil unions” in all legal documents and have identical rights and laws associated with every single “civil union”

    Yalie 13,

    Because 3/4 of the world still believes in an anthropomorphic deity who gets angry.


  • yalie13

    @The Anti-Yale

    That’s not the point though. 100% of the world hold different cultural and religious views, but that doesn’t mean that we should all impose each others personal beliefs on each other. Imagine what the world would be like if we all followed that principle. The issue here is to find the best way legislatively to respect all of those views, not impose those views, and maintain freedom and equality. None of those goals are mutually exclusive but rather highly dependent on each other. That’s the whole point of separation of church and state.