The confident woman in a navy blue Pendleton skirted suit and heels would not back down. The date was March 24, 1987, the place was the nation's highest court, and the woman was Mary Dunlap, a 39-year-old attorney who lived by Eleanor Roosevelt's motto, 'No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.'
The first open lesbian to argue a gay case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Dunlap told the justices that the U.S. Olympic Committee was violating the Constitution by stopping a gay group from calling itself 'the Gay Olympic Games.'
In the narrow legal sense, Mary lost. And the 'Gay Olympic Games' had to be shortened to the Gay Games, now the world's largest sporting event and one that will next be held in Montreal in 2006.
But in truth, Mary had won much, building yet more of what she liked to call 'top soil'—fertile earth that one day will become the lush garden where gay Americans' full equality will blossom.
Because of her efforts, the Supreme Court for the first time used the word 'gay' in a majority opinion and came within one vote of ordering a trial to see if the equal protection rights of the gay group had been violated. And she showed that an out, self-respecting lesbian could hold her own with anybody, even conservative justices intent on intimidating her. (Details in San Francisco Arts & Athletics vs. U.S. Olympic Committee are available at oyez.org .)
Mary understood that the gay rights movement is a long-distance marathon—a relay in which each of us who is gay or gay-friendly gets the opportunity to carry the baton forward in some way. She was proud of having picked up that baton: 'You don't win the first one. You don't win the 10th one. But maybe you win the 90th one, and you have to have 89 cases before that. So, I was one of the 89,' she told me.
And now Mary has handed off the baton to the rest of us. She recently died of pancreatic cancer. She was 54.
Mary overcame many challenges—alcoholism, for example, and a painful childhood —and used them to become someone who continually strived to help others. She fought for talented women denied tenure at universities, teachers automatically fired for becoming pregnant and countless other trailblazers.
Her partner of 17 years, Maureen Mason, says Mary lived her beliefs—that what we do and how we treat one another really matters.
Just weeks before Mary's death, Mary and Maureen were driving to see an accupuncturist treating Mary's pain. It was a stormy night, and the wind and rain had toppled a newly planted sapling. 'In spite of the pain she was in, she said, 'We have to pull over and help that tree,'' Maureen recalls. 'I was like: 'We're running late. Can't we come back later with a shovel or something?' And she was like, 'I thought we had an agreement about this.''
That agreement, Maureen explains, 'was if someone was going to be hurt, we wouldn't wait for someone else to help, we'd do something.' They replanted the little tree.
In small and big ways, Mary demonstrated the difference that one person can make. But she saw herself not as star, but as a relay runner, one of countless caring people fighting to make the world better. When few gay people had the courage to be out, Mary was already battling for gay equality—in courtrooms, in the streets, in her neighborhood. Her message to each of us is to stop being a spectator, to live each day eager to run with the symbolic baton that will let us advance toward equality.
While few of us will ever argue before the Supreme Court, we are offered precious opportunities each day to demonstrate that gay people should be treated with respect and fairness. Even the seemingly smallest act— putting a picture up of our partner at work, for example—can have wonderful ripple effects.
Tragically, Mary Dunlap didn't live to see full equality. But she certainly envisioned it. And her active faith in that vision and in herself moved us closer to the goal.
COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.