At Rutgers-Camden, hailing a hero of gay-marriage fight

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Delivering the annual law school lecture, Mary Bonauto said: “The legal battle for marriage started long before I got involved. …”

Veteran civil rights lawyer Mary L. Bonauto wants it known that "millions of ordinary people, gay and straight," helped her make - and win - the case for marriage equality in America.

Bonauto's first-ever argument before the U.S. Supreme Court yielded a historic ruling that secured the freedom to marry for LGBT couples nationwide in 2015.

On Tuesday, she delivered the annual Rutgers Law School State Constitutional Law Lecture.

A crowd of about 150 in the Rutgers-Camden Campus Center's multipurpose room gave her a standing ovation as Distinguished Professor Robert Williams welcomed her to the lectern.

When she finished speaking about an hour later, Bonauto received a second ovation. I stood too; the simple yet glorious fact of marriage equality has changed the lives of people I love.

"The legal battle for marriage started long before I got involved. . . . The first cases were filed in the 1970s," said Bonauto, quite possibly one of the least self-aggrandizing history-makers in, well, history.

Since 1990, the soft-spoken but fiercely focused Newburgh, N.Y., native and Northeastern University School of Law graduate has been a staff member of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders in Boston.

While some pioneering lawsuits were dismissed as "facetious" or worse, she said, by the 1980s media coverage of the AIDS epidemic began making gay life generally, and same-sex relationships in particular, more visible, and more sympathetic to the mainstream.

Later, grassroots marriage-equality advocates were able to present and defend those relationships "in the context of the principles that bind us together as a nation - liberty, freedom, justice for all," added Bonauto.

Pursuing same-sex marriage on constitutional grounds in individual states, she continued, was "a way forward, incrementally," that helped educate the public and ultimately led to last year's landmark Obergefell v. Hodges ruling.

"It's important to acknowledge all those people who were plaintiffs in [prior] litigation," Bonauto, who graciously agreed to a pre-lecture interview, told me.

"It's important to acknowledge all the people who had conversations with their grumpy in-laws at Thanksgiving about this issue, who came out to their legislators and who introduced their families," she said.

Erudite, straightforward, and blessed with a dry wit, Bonauto, 54, said victory also became possible as gay voices began to be heard, and heeded, in the courts. LGBT people historically had been fearful of exposure inside and outside the justice system.

"It mattered that I was able to speak as someone who was personally affected by this," she said. "I had litigated this issue for years. Certainly there was no doubt I knew what I was talking about."

Bonauto added that legal exclusion from this "powerful cultural, social, and legal institution" stigmatized gay couples as being "other" than everyone else - as people somehow inherently unworthy of equal treatment under the law.

Perhaps that's why so many people, gay and straight, couples and singles, are embracing marriage equality, Diane Marini said.

The Collingswood businesswoman was a plaintiff in a 2002 New Jersey same-sex marriage case that ended, in 2006, with passage of a "civil union" law - a year after her longtime partner, Marilyn Maneely, died.

"I was a witness at the wedding of friends last year who had been together for 49 years, and they said that even after all that time, being married made a difference in their relationship," Marini, 63, said.

"Now we're on a level playing field with everyone else," said Stephen Burch, 55, who married his longtime partner, Steven Drayton, 59, after New Jersey legalized marriage equality in 2013. The couple live in Collingswood.

For Stephen Gwiazdowski and Andrew Seaburg of Hamilton, Mercer County, being legally married has strengthened their bond.

"We've stopped saying, 'This is my partner, this is my boyfriend,' " said Gwiazdowski, 58. "He's my husband! It makes you feel good."

About a dozen LGBT law students met with Bonauto before the lecture. "It was so moving to have her here," said Bassel Rabah, 26, a second-year student from Atlanta.

Bonauto, he added, is a symbol "of how hard everybody had to work to get us where we are."

Although she noted "there are people working 24/7" to turn back the clock on marriage equality, Bonauto sounded generally optimistic.

"By and large in this big, diverse nation of ours," she said, "people understand that it's the law. And it's time to move on."

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