Legal change is a long haul

The Supreme Court hears arguments on Obergefell v. Hodges today; the justices will consider whether there is a right to same sex marriage, and whether states are compelled to recognize same sex marriages performed in other states (see: full faith and credit clause).  Although predicting Court decisions is always uncertain, there is a general sense that advocates of marriage equality are on the verge of a major victory.  Public opinion and state laws have changed dramatically, and the Court generally follows.

This may be a chance for the advocates to take something of a victory lap–after decades of very hard work.

Mary Bonuato is one of the heroes of the marriage equality movement.  She’s been working at Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) for twenty-five years, and Photo of Mary L. Bonautomore than anyone else, has been the architect of the legal strategy for the movement.  Bonuato worked to craft civil union statutes before marriage seemed possible, then crafted the legal arguments in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the 2003 case in which Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found a right to same sex marriage.  She also spent a great deal of time arguing others out of pursuing court cases with less favorable facts and/or judges.  In US v. Windsor, she coordinated the submission of scores of amicus curiae briefs against the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.  Today, she is one of the attorneys arguing before the Court.

Evan Wolfson has been fighting to put marriage equality at the center of the gay and lesbian movement’s agenda since 1983, when he wrote a thesis on the topic while a student Wolfsonat Harvard Law School.  He worked to craft legal arguments, and spoke to publicize those arguments and the cause to much larger audiences.  More than a decade ago, he founded Freedom to Marry, an organization to coordinate these efforts.  Wolfson pushed the marriage issue to activist audiences at a time when many gays and lesbians viewed the goal of marriage equality as either undesirable or impossible.  Wolfson has told Mark Joseph Stern (at Slate) that he expects to declare victory, disband his now-successful campaign, and take a break.  Stern reports:

“The work of the gay rights movement will be far from over,” Wolfson told me in an interview earlier this month, “but the work of the campaign will be finished. Once we’ve won marriage, our job will be done.”

Many many other people, including lawyers, have contributed mightily to the campaign for marriage equality.  Mary Bonuato and Evan Wolfson recognized long ago that the dramatic day in court represents decades of mostly invisible work against odds that seemed insurmountable.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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