Who Were the Midwives of America’s Gay Marriage Movement?

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Douglas Hallward-Driemeier and Mary Bonauto, lawyers for the plaintiffs in Obergefell v. Hodges, speak to the media after arguments about gay marriage at the Supreme Court in Washington April 28, 2015. Stubborn and visionary, Bonauto and activist Evan Wolfson have transformed America for the better. Joshua Roberts/Reuters

For Evan Wolfson, the man who’s been hailed as the godfather of the gay marriage movement, forging a 50-state constitutional guarantee for the freedom to marry would begin with just a single state. That single state—at best fantastical hopefulness, at worst pathological delusion—was a long time coming and at times seemed like it never would.

In 1983, fully two decades before the first gay couples ever legally wed in the first American state to allow it, Wolfson, then a third-year law student at Harvard, completed his 77-page thesis, Samesex Marriage and Morality: The Human Rights Vision of the Constitution. The possibility of even a single state recognizing equal marriage was laughably implausible at the time and for much that followed.

HIV and AIDS were butchering whole queer communities and anti-sodomy statutes were on the books in more than a dozen states. Hell, America’s academic betters weren’t even hyphenating same-sex.

To his contemporaries, the notion of marriage equality wasn’t so much radical as ridiculous. Gay liberation activists, who were largely the reason that AIDS was contained, actively scorned the idea. But Wolfson was implacable, understanding the broad cultural significance (the full mantle of citizenship) that the freedom to marry would extend to gays and lesbians.

Now, 32 years later, the United States Supreme Court is widely expected to find for gays and lesbians a constitutional right to marry the person they love. It will have been Wolfson’s unremitting drive—his refusal to bow to critics within and without the gay rights movement—that made this ruling even a possibility.

But Wolfson didn’t midwife marriage equality on his own. If he performed the ultrasound and wrote the birth plan, it was Mary Bonauto who birthed it in the courtroom.

Bonauto, the diminutive and soft-spoken litigator who argued last month before the high court on behalf of gay and lesbians couples from four states that still disallow gay nuptials, has been a central figure in the legal battle for LGBT civil rights for the last quarter century.

In 1997, she was co-counsel on the Vermont case that eventually extended first-in-the-nation civil union benefits to gay and lesbian couples. Four years later, she was the lead counsel in the landmark Massachusetts case that extended first-in-the-nation marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples. In the years that followed she also brought marriage to Connecticut and Maine (twice, thanks to successive ballot measures). Now she hopes to bring it everywhere else.

As with any movement, there are the plodders and the preeners, the progenitors and the latter-day publicity-seekers. But Wolfson and Bonauto have been there from the beginning: Stubborn and visionary, they’ve transformed America for the better.

Largely a function of the biological impossibility for two persons of the same gender to procreate—it’s heterosexuals who keep producing all these gay babies, after all—the queer community lacks an oral history tradition through which the next generation might learn of the watershed achievements of the last.

So the quiet gay teen in rural Sylvester, Georgia—as much a stranger to himself as to those around him, cautious always never to reveal too much of his true self—doesn’t know of all the profound progress made for him by Wolfson and Bonauto. He doesn’t learn in school or at home of the Stonewall Riots, or of the election and assassination of Harvey Milk, or of early AIDS activism and the federal government’s deliberate slow-walk to acknowledge the crisis.

Isolated, he doesn’t know there are others like him. Ignorant of a cultural skirmish that long predates him, he doesn’t know there are others fighting for him. But they are there, and they’ve been there long before he took his first breath.

Still, it’s disheartening that our Georgia boy might not know who it was that finally rendered him equal in the eyes of his government. So take it from another quiet gay kid from Sylvester: Regardless of whatever action the court takes this summer, “samesex” marriage will come to America because of Evan Wolfson and Mary Bonauto.

James Richardson is a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee and governors Haley Barbour and Jon Huntsman. He was among the signers of a GOP amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court advocating for the freedom to marry.

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