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Reflecting on 20 Years of Making the Impossible Possible – and the Challenges Ahead

Mary Bonauto Massachusetts
Image: Ken Cedeno/Corbis via Getty Images

On the anniversary of Massachusetts's ruling on marriage equality, Mary Bonauto, the lead counsel for the same-sex couples involved in the case, writes about how LGBTQ+ history was made and how to keep going.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the landmark Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling that led to the first same-sex couples being able to legally marry in Massachusetts. It’s an anniversary to celebrate nationwide as it finally made possible a freedom that for so long seemed impossible to achieve and was a beacon of hope and justice that inspired other impossible changes.

Often, what separates the possible and impossible is a plan. And the plan that helped us achieve equal marriage rights involved keeping at it – pursuing justice work for LGBTQ+ people in all areas while also supporting each other and engaging with the public, all with the goal of advancing justice for all.

My colleagues and I at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), one of the oldest LGBTQ legal movement organizations, along with many other legal, community, and advocacy organizations, worked tirelessly to elevate and amplify the voices of same-sex couples and LGBTQ+ people in the courts, the legislatures, and the court of public opinion. Extraordinary people challenged injustices, including courageous plaintiffs, attorneys, organizers, and doers. We won important early victories and faced heart-breaking national blowback – from the president, the Congress, our own governor in Massachusetts, and attempts to reverse that first groundbreaking decision in Massachusetts and later victories as well.

Despite the hurdles, we kept going, eventually securing wins across New England, successfully challenging the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act, and having the honor and responsibility of arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell for the equal right to marry nationwide.

Now, as we mark this 20th anniversary, we must again dig deep to fight forward against some of the fiercest anti-LGBTQ attacks of our lifetimes, and a coordinated effort to reverse all of the equality gains we’ve made since the last century for our communities. These include attempts to censor the lives and experiences of LGBTQ+ humans in the classroom; roll back hard-won constitutional protections; carve out harmful exceptions to our nondiscrimination laws; and make it harder to protect yourself and others from HIV. And while our entire community faces revitalized prejudice, the tip of the spear is directed at transgender people and, outrageously, trans young people, with many new pernicious laws standing in the way of parents being able to support their transgender children.

The truth is that this barrage of harmful state laws affects all LGBTQ+ people and everyone who seeks freedom and safety for our communities. They all ooze from the same pen, spreading disinformation about LGBTQ+ people and those who love and support us, telling us who we can and cannot be, that we should keep quiet about our lives and families.

But this is a time to speak up – not be silent. And we all have the opportunities to do so. Apart from the extremist forces trying to divide us is another group of people who are newly and earnestly confused, who have questions about our community. We can engage in a way that invites more conversation and not less.

In really hard times, when the challenges feel insurmountable, it’s helpful to remember some of our history. On this anniversary it’s especially important to understand that on the path to marriage equality there were losses on the way to victories, and that the victories were never inevitable. What helped bring about transformative change was the strength we drew from one another – and a commitment to never, ever quitting.

Let’s remember that at one time during the effort to win marriage equality, 40+ states had either laws, constitutional amendments, or both, that said our relationships were unworthy of recognition. And going even further back, we must remember that in 1986, the Supreme Court upheld so-called “sodomy” laws that subjected some people to 20-year prison terms for having sex. Yet, against all odds, we overturned those laws – and we will overturn these latest anti-LGBTQ laws, too. We will always find a path forward.

In confronting losses, our challenge is to learn from them, draw strength from them, and leverage them into future wins – to know that we can move forward despite losses, even in the face of obstacles and injustices.

In my 33 years at GLAD, and in these 20 years since that momentous court ruling heard round the world, I’ve learned that no matter the outcome in a particular case or legislative effort, what keeps us moving forward is staying engaged, standing up for our commitment to a world where equality, freedom, and belonging are real for everyone, and holding onto the belief that we can make that world a reality.

To be sure, we are not where we want and need to be. But as we travel, let us remember how far we’ve come as fuel for the journey. What seems impossible can be done. And now – if we all remain engaged – we will do the impossible again.

Mary Bonauto is the Senior Director of Civil Rights and Legal Strategies for GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders. She was lead counsel in Goodridge and argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges.

Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.

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