Student Reflections on Hearing Mary Bonauto Speak

Acadia Weinberg ’16

Last Thursday, the Waynflete Upper School had the honor of welcoming Mary Bonauto to speak at assembly. Mary has dedicated her life to fighting prejudicial discrimination against LGBTQ Americans through the legal system, arguing cases that set precedents in favor of equality. Among her long list of achievements, she was one of three lawyers who argued for same-sex marriage in the lanmark U.S. Supreme Court case last June, Obergefell v. Hodges, establishing the freedom to marry for same-sex couples nationwide..

However, true to Lowell’s introduction, she announced right away that she had not come to talk about her accomplishments. Her real intention was to encourage us, as the incoming generation, to connect with our passions and pursue success. Set goals, make dreams, and then surpass them, simply because we are capable of doing so.

After speaking, Mary took questions from students and faculty. A common thread of curiosity seemed to be surrounding Mary’s encounters with hatred and injustice in her line of work. In her responses, she underlined the importance of patience and the ability to listen. When dealing with opinions that oppose personally held values, she explained that respectful dialogue is essential to moving forward. Often times, the path to an end goal is not necessarily straight (no pun intended). Stubborn hatred and fear are obstacles that can take a long time to maneuver through.

For instance, a student asked Mary about her opinion as a lawyer on Martin Luther King Jr.’s admonishment to disobey unjust laws. Mary paused for a moment to gather her thoughts before speaking. She did not think that unlawful behavior was always the most productive way of fighting discriminatory legislation. Through an example of a gay client wanting to file joint taxes with their long-time partner before gay marriage was legal, she expressed her preference for tackling the law head on. “Go ahead and file those taxes,” she advised her client, “then we’ll sue the government for your refund!”

Following the assembly, Mary joined members of PRIDE around a square of tables in the ceramics room. After noting our names on a scribbled diagram of our seating arrangement, she looked up and addressed the group. “What are you struggling with? What is difficult? What are your experiences like?”

The day before Mary came to Waynflete, I tried to buy NyQuil for my mother, who was suffering from a nasty cold. Unbeknownst to me, adolescents under 18 can’t buy cough syrup, so I had to awkwardly endure the two drugstore employees squinting at my driver’s license and speaking to me in condescending, insulting tones, as if I was trying to get away with something. To then sit across from one of the most influential people in the LGBTQ rights movement the following day and hear her ask about my experience as a teenager in 2016 was somewhat jarring. It was easy to open up to her about what we were concerned about and struggling with. She held eye contact and listened intently to those who spoke, and her responses were thoughtful and compassionate. I felt safe, relaxed, and respected in her presence, and in reflection on her visit as a group the following day, several members of PRIDE echoed similar sentiments.

Mary posed a question early in her talk during assembly that has been at the forefront of my mind as I think ahead to college and the adult world. It is a question that, before hearing her speak, has kindled my fear, anxiety, and self-doubt, since my answer supposedly determines my future. But now, turning the question over in my mind makes me feel empowered, capable, and unpredictable (in a good way).

Out of all of your passions, to what are you drawn?

Kiera Macwhinnie ’17

On Thursday, January 21st , we welcomed a very special speaker to one of our Waynflete assemblies: Mary Bonauto. She not only argued a case in front of the U.S Supreme Court but won her case, legalizing gay marriage in America (Obergefell v. Hodges). Mary has worked for the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD’s) as the Civil Rights Project Director since 1990. (To learn more about Mary Bonauto’s career click here.)

Mary is an advocate for her beliefs and someone who is an inspiration to all. When she came to the assembly, she focused less on her accomplishments and more about how she got this far and what it means to live a life dedicated and devoted to something she truly believes in.

Her dedication to making a change started when she was working as a bagger at a local food supermarket. She bagged groceries as a teenager to have some spending money and to save up for college. However, many of her co-workers were trying to make a living off of this job by working full time. The grocery store started cutting hours off of the full time employees to save money for the supermarket, but that meant that full time employees did not qualify for healthcare benefits. She felt this was wrong, and she knew this needed to be changed.

Soon after, Mary went to Hamilton college and quickly noticed that it was a school with lots of Fraternities. She didn’t like the negative effect that the fraternities created in the college environment, so she took action and started a group that specifically talked about negative environments due to the presence of fraternities. This group was not supported by the fraternities, but that didn’t stop Mary from continuing the group because she felt it was right.

Through these events, Mary realized that change needed to be made in many small situations like a grocery store or a college campus. That realization is what drove her to become a lawyer and to fight and be dedicated to causes that she believes in. Mary is now an extremely successful lawyer who won the case legalizing gay marriage in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mary told the Upper School Students that when she started working for marriage equality people told her that “it was a lost cause”. People told her that fighting for it wasn’t worth it because it would never happen in her lifetime. Mary Bonauto was so dedicated and so committed to what she believed in that marriage equality is no longer a lost cause – it’s real.