Out lawyer Mary Bonauto on winning marriage and what comes next for LGBT Americans

We all know the road to same-sex marriage in the U.S. was a long one and one that involved many people. But if you had to credit one woman whose decades’ worth of work most made this reality possible, it has got to be Mary Bonauto, who history may best remember for arguing the Obergefell v. Hodges decision.

Mary’s work, along with that of same-sex marriage architect Evan Wolfson, is at the center of the new documentary The Freedom to Marry. Ahead of the film’s world premiere at Frameline on June 25, we spoke with Mary about everything from her worries before the final decision to her thoughts on her legacy to what she thinks about the negative political games that followed our victory. 

Mary Bonauto in THE FREEDOM TO MARRY - Photo by Eyepop Productions (1)

Sadly, given the timing of our interview and the shock we all felt, she also took a few minutes to share her thoughts about the tragedy in Orlando.

AfterEllen.com: By your own expectations, did we get same-sex marriage in the U.S. sooner than you would have thought possible even just a decade ago?

Mary Bonauto: Yes. Although by the time that we actually got it, it seemed right on time. And that’s because circumstances kept evolving, changing, because of the work so many millions of people were doing on the ground.


AE: There’s a moment in the film where someone says they hope future generations of LGBT people do take for granted the fact that they can get married because they should be able to take that for granted. Would you agree with that? And if so, where does honoring our pioneers fall into that?

MB: You know, I agree and disagree with the statement. I want people to feel like of course–I want them to feel in their bones that of course they are entitled to the same protections and freedoms that everyone else has. I do want them to feel that. At the same time, I am a strong believer that history matters and you need to know the contested terrain to understand anything about the world you live in. You need to understand how we arrived at where we are and, as you put it, honor the struggles of those who came before, partly so you can also understand the struggles that face you and the new ones that will come down the pike.

 Mary with Evan WolfsonEvan Wolfson (left) and Mary Bonauto (right) in THE FREEDOM TO MARRY - Photo by Eyepop Productions

AE: You’re also shown speaking with Evan Wolfson about the possibility of losing the case. You certainly didn’t seem to take victory for granted. But how prepared were you for a loss and what, at that point, would have been the outlook for same-sex marriage in the country for say, the next 10 years?

MB: Well it’s interesting you point that out because I really do, I really did believe we were right. And the decision came out the way that we had tried to present our argument and also in our written brief. You know, in a sense this had been decided before with respect to race in the Loving v. Virginia case. It talks forcefully about equality and the message of exclusion and stigma that is sent when you exclude gay people from the choice of marrying. But I am somebody who doesn’t believe it’s over until it’s over.

What would have been the outlook? It would have been very grim. It would have been very grim, and it’s the kind of thing that, let me put it this way, that myself and others took seriously enough to actually examine it. Because even though the Supreme Court had denied review in a number of other cases from circuit courts, like in Utah, Oklahoma cases, Idaho, Virginia and so on, what would have essentially happened is that those cases would have been unwound. The old paradigm would have sprung up, so you would have all these amendments back in force. And that would have been pretty disastrous. The classic house divided where some states have protections for LGBTQ families and some do not. And of course there was still a road forward–there’s always a road forward. I’m very much a plan B person. I think Evan is too. And the plan B would be then to have to win state-by-state. In that instance, it would have been convincing legislators to allow amendments to go forward to state constitutions, which would then have to be voted on by the electorate to undo those amendments. So we were definitely looking at a protracted process.