April 11, 2001: Mary Bonauto files Massachusetts marriage suit
TWENTY YEARS AGO TODAY...
Attorney Mary Bonauto sued Massachusetts in state court on behalf of seven couples seeking the right to marry.
Bonauto, the lead litigator for the Boston-based public interest firm Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, had been one of three lawyers behind a similar 1997 challenge in Vermont. That case had yielded mixed results: the Vermont Supreme Court was persuaded that the existing marriage law excluding gay and lesbian couples was unconstitutional, but a majority could not agree that the remedy was to permit them to wed. Instead, legislators created the novel practice of “civil unions,” a compromise alternative that extended the rights and benefits of same-sex marriage to same-sex couples without the fraught label. She and her fellow attorneys had helped pave the way for such a separate-but-equal institution, Bonauto came to conclude, by focusing too much on constitutional arguments about government-awarded benefits and not enough on the symbolic power of having one’s relationship recognized as a marriage.
To avoid a similar outcome in Massachusetts, Bonauto worked to create a more emotionally resonant case. Instead of just pulling plaintiffs from the state’s small circle of pro-marriage activists, Bonauto trekked across Massachusetts to recruit couples who would reflect a diversity of age, gender, class, family structure, life experience, and geography. She expressly sought out plaintiffs in every Massachusetts media market, so as to maximize human-interest coverage of their lives by local press. The lawsuit would take the shared name of Julie and Hillary Goodridge, whose three-year-old daughter Annie had once asked them: “If you love each other, then why aren’t you married?”
Bonauto unveiled Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health on April 11, 2001, at the Omni Parker House in downtown Boston. Fourteen plaintiffs crowded around her at the podium in the hotel ballroom; all had requested marriage licenses from town clerks’ offices over the prior two weeks and believed their denial violated the state constitution. She hoped they would tell a different story than she and her fellow attorneys were able to in Vermont. “Marriage,” Bonauto told reporters, “is a legal relationship and a social status understood everywhere.”