Mary Bonauto, an alumna of Northeastern University’s School of Law and a pioneer in the fight for marriage equality, has been named to the 2014 Class of MacArthur Fellows. The prestigious award, which is funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, includes a $625,000 “genius grant.”
The MacArthur Fellows Program aims to stoke the creativity of talented individuals by allowing them the freedom to follow their innovative visions without stipulations or reporting requirements. More than 900 people with a track record of high achievement in a diverse range of fields have been selected to receive the award since the program’s inception in 1981.
Bonauto, L’87, is the law school’s second graduate to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. The first recipient, Marie-Therese Connolly, L’84, received the award in 2011 to advance her work to combat elder abuse and mistreatment.
Bonauto has spent the majority of her professional career promoting liberty and equality for all. In particular, she has worked to secure marriage equality for same-sex couples and the legal protections marriage affords.
“Gay people share a common humanity with everyone else,” said Bonauto, who has been called the Thurgood Marshall of the gay rights movement. “Over the past 10 years, we have seen every demographic move toward greater support for marriage equality, with more and more people standing up for what they truly believe in.”
Bonauto has worked as the civil rights project director at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders since 1990, focusing on impact litigation for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities. In 1999, she waged the legal effort to secure marriage in Vermont, which led to the nation’s first civil unions law. In 2003, she won the Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, providing a roadmap for future litigation.
At a panel discussion at Northeastern last fall, Bonauto reflected on the personal and political ramifications of the state’s same-sex marriage ruling, saying that the four judges who voted in favor of legalizing gay marriage were censured for their decision. “They realized they would take a pounding for standing for their principles,” she said, “but these same principles caused people to rally for this decision, which lifted up gay people in this state and across the nation.”
Eight years after same-sex couples began marrying in Massachusetts, Bonauto led GLAD’s challenges to the constitutionality of Section 3 of the Defense Of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman. Her work served as the model for United States v. Windsor, the landmark case that led the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down DOMA in 2013.
Jeremy Paul, dean of Northeastern’s School of Law, praised Bonauto for her unwavering commitment to breaking down legal barriers based on sexual orientation. “Bonauto is well-known on our campus as a courageous, irrepressible, and brilliant lawyer who has been the architect of many legal victories along the road to full equality for all our citizens,” he said. “Her work has helped us all see that when it comes to legal recognition love should truly know no bounds.”
In addition to her considerable achievements as a civil rights lawyer, Bonauto is a past co-chair of the American Bar Association’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Committee and currently serves on the Honorary Board of the Boston Chapter of the American Constitution Society.
Bonauto earned her bachelor’s degree from Hamilton College in 1983 and her juris doctor from Northeastern’s law school just four years later. She completed four co-ops while at Northeastern, working for two law firms; the Office of the Massachusetts Attorney General; and Greater Boston Legal Services, which provides free legal assistance and representation on civil matters.
Each of her experiential learning opportunities at Northeastern enabled her to examine the legal system from a different vantage point, giving her a rare perspective on the many ways in which the law can be used for good. “My co-op experiences have been invaluable to the work I’ve done at GLAD,” Bonauto said. “We’ve been very eager to collaborate with nonprofits, advocacy groups, and legal services organizations to help us move our initiatives forward.”
Bonauto’s long-term goals include eradicating HIV and ending LGBT discrimination in both the workplace and the classroom. “Achieving marriage equality does not mean our work is done,” she said. “Marriage equality will resolve the issue of gay marriage, but it will not ensure that LGBT students are safe in schools or LGBT employees are not discriminated on the job.”