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.
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“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.