Liberty and Justice

Fighting the Good Fight

As soon as recorded transcripts from today’s Supreme Court arguments were available I listened to every word.

As impassioned and divisive as the marriage equality arguments have been, that is not something I wish to focus on today. Rather, I’d like to spotlight the strategic brilliance and unwavering sense of justice of Mary Bonauto, who not only devised but delivered such a strong argument just hours ago.

With great pride, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I want to say that for more than a decade in my “real life,” I’ve done what little I could to support Mary and the wonderful folks at GLAD. (For those unaware, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders is a seminal group based in Boston.) Many others will appropriately herald Mary’s powerful words, her unflappable nature, and grace under fire. To me, having heard her over the years, her poise come as no great surprise—especially when arguing in the nation’s highest court for a cause so close to her heart.

What I want to focus on is a lesson I am still striving to assimilate. Something so subtle and so much a part of Mary’s nature that it has taken a decade for me to realize what she’s known from the start. Mary has NEVER—not for one instant, EVER—swayed from her faith in what is right and just. She has fought on, methodically, strategically, and with unbounded energy to share her vision and help others see the light. And, at a speed that had Supreme Court Justices questioning how little time has passed, the change she knew was possible has come to pass.

Her formula was so simple, for a while I overlooked it in favor of something more complex. She kept faith in her fellow citizens and believed change was possible.  And now, regardless of subsequent judicial outcomes, that change has occurred and many are stunned by it. The arguments she faced today were not about right of gay people to love—that’s old news. Her job today was to pour cold water on the last flickering remains of a cottage-industry of fear-mongering and rabble-rousing. And that’s exactly what she did, with logic, dignity, and typically understated eloquence.

This country of ours is defined by myths, some of which are fracturing as life’s pace accelerates and traditional methods of communication are replaced by faster, though not necessarily better, options. So much pabulum has been put out there about the inability of the “little guy” to succeed that we’ve given up on the idea that this can still actually happen. We’ve become numb to the persuasiveness of good intent and the consummate power of what is right. Perhaps worst of all, we’ve become so overwhelmed with cynicism we’ve grown weary. Today Mary reminded us all is not yet lost.

It’s important to take a moment today and think through what Mary and the outstanding folks at GLAD have accomplished, and what’s more, how quickly they’ve done it. It was at least a decade ago when Mary first exhorted us to “tell our stories.” Her brilliant-yet-simple premise was, in part, as follows: If the general public had some firsthand knowledge of a gay person’s experience as a second-class citizen, things would change for the better. Mary knew that immediacy was the most powerful antidote to the managed myths being brought forth by those worked into a frenzy by the likes of Carl Rove. She knew a strategy of humanizing the issue would ignite the fundamental decency of our fellow citizens. This was the best way to move the debate, and as it turns out, to make the case.

Today, she spoke brilliantly in front of the Supreme Court, continually returning to the points of respect, dignity, and equality under the law. And, most significantly, a majority of the nation already agrees with her even if nine justices have not yet made up their minds.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen GLAD’s strategy unfold over the years. Much of what Mary saw when others did not—her core beliefs, if I may be so bold—are the very things most under siege in today’s world of punditry, mass manipulation, and sound bytes. Our faith in each other as human beings, our hopes for our better selves, our aspirations for our country are all awash in the torrent of self-aggrandizement, factionalism, and manipulation that swirl in front of us at rate never before seen. Yet Mary and a group of others understood intuitively that these forces could be vanquished. Rather than buckling under to the pressure, Mary and her colleagues took pleasure in highlighting the contradictions and inconsistencies in the very messages targeted against them. They remained steadfast, focused on the task at hand, and confident in the outcome. As should we all.

I suggest we can learn much from Mary Bonauto: always have faith in yourself; never accept second-place citizenship; trust in the fundamental decency of the majority and make it your mission to help them understand when they do not; and—as simplistic and hackneyed as it may sound—never stop fighting the good fight.

A. C. Burch
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