"If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to want freedom and yet deprecate agitation want crops without piling up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening, they want the ocean without the awful roar of its waters."--Frederick Douglass
On August 12, 2003, three months before the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny same-sex couples the right to marry, I interviewed GLAD attorney Mary Bonauto. The following are excerpts from that interview.
"I think [the Douglass] quote is emblematic of the struggle we're now in," Bonauto said. "We have to go a step at a time. If you believe in equality, if you believe in freedom, then that means there's going to be a struggle. And of course when you ask for equality and you call the question -- you ask the question: 'What is the reason for excluding gay people from this massive government institution when the state and federal constitutions say that we're all created equally?' -- then sure, it's going to agitate some people and you're going to get your thunder and your lightning. But in the end, you know, as Frederick Douglass said, if there's no struggle, there's no progress."
DK: Tell me about your background.
MB: My mother is a northern European mix, and her mother was an immigrant from Prussia. Her father was of Irish and English stock, and my father's parents were Italian immigrants. My mother's parents were farmers in upstate New York and I spent a lot of time there, but we all came to identify closely with the Italian part of our heritage.
And I think it's again because it's the underdog part. The part that people notice, the struggle to spell our last name, the business of comments about your name ending with an O or a vowel or so on. So we all came to identify culturally more with the Italian side of our heritage.
DK: What were some key experiences in your life growing up?
MB: I think the fact that I had three brothers was very important to me; I love them all. I'm just crazy about each of them. They looked out for one another and for me. Those bonds are very important to me.
I remember when I discovered the Constitution and was so moved by that. I actually got there by reading about Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Although now I realize some limitations of Holmes, at the time I remember feeling that he was great and the Constitution was the most incredible thing.
DK: How old were you then?
MB: I was around 13.
DK: And how did you come out?
MB: I really just fell in love with somebody, and it was undeniable at that point what was going on, and I knew why I felt different. I was convinced my life was over.
DK: What did you see in your future?
MB: I saw a future of hiding, concealing who I was and creating an artifice around me to distract people from what I know knew to be the truth about me. It's something I struggled with. I struggled to make myself fit in with what I perceived to be the social norms, but it just never felt at all comfortable. I always felt at some level like I was lying to myself, and then at 19 it just became irrefutable what exactly I was lying to myself and the world about.
Anyway, I fell for somebody, and it was undeniable what it was about. At that point I was in college, and even though I thought I was doing a good job maintaining an artifice about it, other people figured out what was going on, and I began to be harassed, to quite a degree of severity. I had to move out of my dorm room, and they moved me around to different administrators' homes for different periods of time. It was hard to answer my own phone because people were calling me during the night to say very upsetting things.
DK: When did you first get involved in the same-sex marriage movement?
MB: The first person I ever wanted to marry is the person I'm with right now. She and I got involved in 1987. I started working for GLAD in 1990, and one of the first things on my desk on my first day at GLAD, on March 19, 1990, was a request from a lesbian couple in western Massachusetts saying they wanted to get married, and I'd said "no" to many people over the years, just saying "it's not the right time, of course you're right, of course we should have this, of course it's unequal, of course it's going to be good for your family, of course the government is supposed to treat everybody equally unless they have a good reason not to, and there's no good reason here, but people aren't ready."
I've been involved at some level in terms of wanting it myself or having to say no as a legal matter for many years now.
DK: Did you always feel that same-sex couples deserved the same rights as opposite-sex couples?
MB: I don't know that I always gave it a lot of thought. I had this friend who I grew up with who also was raised Catholic, and we used to participate together in certain church activities and so on. She and I ultimately went different ways politically, but I remember way back when having a conversation with her where I said to her, "Of course I should be able to get married," and her finding that shocking, and feeling like it was a very brave thing to say to her. That was a long, long time ago. So at some level I think I always felt like of course we should have the right, because we're talking about the government.
And again, my having fallen in love with the Constitution and believing in its promises and believing at a young age what I still believe... something Justice Ginsburg actually said in the Virginia Military Institute case, which is that the story of our Constitution is the story of including within its protections people who have formerly been ignored and excluded. I'm enough of a student of history to realize that over time, equal means equal for more people.
If you'd like to hear the entire interview, go to www.davinakotulski.com/contact. Drop me a note and I'll send you a link to the audio recording.
Photo by Davina Kotulski, Ph.D. The picture was taken in Massachusetts at around 11:00 P.M. on May 16, 2004. It depicts Mary Bonauto being interviewed as the crowd waited for the clock to strike midnight and usher in marriage equality in a U.S. state for the first time.