As ballots were assembled to be cast in early voting this week, Mary Bonauto, the civil rights project director of the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), spoke about her work to expand marriage equality to a small crowd in Kresge Auditorium last Monday. A referendum on same-sex marriage is Question 1 on the Maine ballot this year.

Bonauto has been working on a case challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which witholds numerous benefits from same-sex couples that are extended to heterosexual couples, including insurance benefits and joint tax returns. DOMA also allows states not to recognize same-sex marriage licenses obtained in other states.

Bonauto is also a member of the executive committee for the Mainers United for Marriage campaign.

Bonauto has made a career of defending marriage equality in court. She has worked for GLAD since 1990, and led their charge for the legalization of civil unions in Vermont and Connecticut, and for same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. 

The Bowdoin College Democrats and Bowdoin Queer Straight Alliance sponsored her visit to campus.
Bonauto, who is openly gay, said she is personally invested in her legal work.

“It’s sort of a soul scoring experience to be excluded from marriage. I’ve been with my partner for 25 years and I still can’t believe that somehow I’m so unworthy that this commitment can’t count for purposes of obtaining a government marriage license,” she said. 

 “You want to be able to go home at night and feel like you have an actual, legal relationship with the person you love and are sharing your life with,” Bonauto told the crowd.

Bonauto began her lecture with a “crash course” on the history of court cases dealing with marriage equality, dating back to the nation-wide sodomy laws passed in 1961, and explained the history of the most common arguments against marriage equality. She also noted that it is not always clear which body of government has the authority to decide on this matter.

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York struck down DOMA in a ruling last week, and the case is now on track to go before the Supreme Court. Bonauto, however, doubts that the Supreme Court will hear it.

“I do think that the Supreme Court is very concerned institutionally about getting too far ahead of the people and picking out issues that it doesn’t necessarily need to address before their time,” she said.
The discussion then turned to Maine’s Question 1. 

“Should we win, this is very important, not only for Maine, but for the nation,” Bonauto said. “They can see that people who once voted on marriage one way can vote another way after they’ve changed their minds; and that you can change your mind on this issue.”

In 2009, a ballot measure to legalize same-sex marriage in Maine failed by a small margin, and Bonauto said that this election cycle, she and Mainers United for Marriage are “placing our trust in the voters” and in the referendum process. 

“The initiative and referendum process has been used against gay people more than any other minority in this country ever,” Bonauto said. “Here in Maine we have reclaimed it as a tool.”

Bonauto spent a small portion of her speech discussing Question 1, and some students felt that the current ballot measure was not given enough attention. 

“I would have liked to hear her talk about the Maine issue more,” Chris Genco ’15 said. “But I definitely enjoyed hearing about the different battles that she’s been a part of and how the country has trended and where it is moving to on this issue.” 

Bonauto said college students are crucial in promoting marriage equality. 

“The student vote is hugely important,” Bonauto said. “But also young people’s passion and energy to make sure that people who love each other can marry is instrumental. This generation has taken this over the finish line.” 

According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, 53 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage. When asked about her expectation for November 6, Bonauto said she is hopeful Question 1 will pass.

“I have a lot of reasons to believe it,” she said, “But I’ll believe it when I see it.”