Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Obergefell reflects on 1-year anniversary of marriage case


Jim Obergefell was in San Francisco last week promoting his new book, Love Wins. Photo; Brian Bromberger
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For Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case that established marriage equality in all 50 states, it all came down to love.

"Everyone connected with Obergefell v. Hodges started from a place of love," Obergefell, who was in San Francisco last week promoting his new book, told the Bay Area Reporter in an interview.

"I loved John and wanted to live up to my promises to him," he said, referring to his late husband, John Arthur. "When you are fighting for love, I don't think there is any limit for what you can accomplish."

Obergefell, 50, took part in a discussion about marriage equality at the GLBT History Museum, with Shannon Minter, legal director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality, by Obergefell and co-author Debbie Cenziper was recently published by William Morrow.

In 1992 on their third date, Obergefell fell in love with Arthur in Cincinnati. The couple were together for two decades.

After the U.S. Supreme Court, in the 2013 Windsor case, ruled that the federal government must provide married same-sex couples all the benefits offered to straight couples, he proposed to Arthur, who was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

Chartering a $14,000 medical ambulance jet (funded by supportive friends and family) to Baltimore, they were married on the airport tarmac. Arthur died three months later.

"The greatest privilege of my life was to take care of the man I love," Obergefell said.

But when they returned home, not only wouldn't Ohio recognize their marriage, but as civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein showed them on Arthur's death certificate, Obergefell would not be listed as the surviving spouse, a heartbreaking example of Ohio not sanctioning their marriage.

"They were saying that the most important relationship of our lives didn't exist, that our marriage didn't matter. They wanted John to die with his last official public record being wrong. That broke our hearts and pissed us off. And Al gave us the chance to do something about it," he said.

"Without John dying, it's hard to imagine we would have wound up in anything like this, but he said yes as a way of thanking me for taking care of him and 'ruining my life,' even though he knew the burden of this case would be entirely on me," Obergefell continued. "I could have taken John six blocks to get a marriage license, something that countless couples do every day and take for granted in Ohio. Instead we were forced, when John was on his deathbed, to travel to another state to marry. It was demeaning as human beings and as U.S. citizens. We wanted respect, dignity, and the rights our Constitution awards us. We wanted to make our promises and commitments public and legal."


A changed life

Obergefell said his life has "completely" changed since the court's ruling just over a year ago. He has since left his IT job and got a real estate license. But since the oral arguments last spring, Obergefell has been working as a speaker, activist, and advocate.

"I called myself, at the beginning of this case, an accidental activist, since I had never been one before, just signing checks for causes we cared about," he said.

On a personal and emotional level, his life has changed dramatically in the last year in that every time Obergefell talks about Arthur or tells their story, it helps him process his grief.

"Today, I'm a much happier person than I would have been if I hadn't had this activism opportunity to deal with this loss," he said. "This work gave me something else to focus on, so I wasn't home staring at an empty condo and constantly reliving memories of John. Speaking about him everyday, what our marriage meant, and why we decided to fight, has kept him alive for me, enabling me to concentrate on the good things we had, rather than wallow in my sorrow."

After hearing Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion on decision day, Obergefell has reread it a few times.

"The biggest impact on me is the last page where he talks about how in marriage two people become greater than they once were individually," Obergefell said. "He noted that we weren't asking to diminish marriage, but wanting it so badly, we were simply asking to participate in it and commit to the person we love. We asked for equal dignity in the eyes of the law and the Constitution now gives us that right. I will read this page at a wedding I will be officiating this weekend. After that ruling, for the first time in my adult gay life, I felt like a real American."

When challenged to consider if there was any connection between his case and this month's mass shooting at a gay Orlando nightclub, Obergefell observed, "We all expected there to be a backlash after marriage equality, though I never expected it to be as vicious as it has been, especially toward our transgender siblings. While there is no specific direct link to that horrific shooting, Orlando wouldn't have happened without the environment of hatred directed toward the LGBT community by leaders of all sorts – political, governmental, religious – who, because of their words and actions, not only condone, but encourage, violence against us.

"Having lost marriage equality they stoked a lot of anger in the opponents of equality, so it has added to the vocal backlash and continued hatred directed toward us. From this perspective, unfortunately, I would say yes, it contributed to Orlando," he said.

Reacting to marriage equality critics like Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and religious liberty proponents, Obergefell questioned, "Where does discrimination end? I don't understand why they don't look in their history books and see that the same excuses and arguments were used previously and unsuccessfully toward interracial marriages."

"Once you start down the path that my private religious beliefs prevent me from performing my sworn duties as an officer of the court or as a public official, even though you are there to serve every citizen equally, it becomes a dangerous slope and is antithetical to what America is all about," Obergefell said.

Obergefell is disappointed in Ohio and Cincinnati, although the city has made a seismic shift in mindset. In 2004 it repealed the draconian Issue 3 charter amendment, which said no law could be passed to protect the LGBT community. Voters there have also elected their first openly gay city council member, and last year it became the first city in the country outside of Washington, D.C. to ban conversion therapy.

"The urban areas, like most of the country, are more gay-friendly than the rural and suburban parts, but it is all a process," Obergefell said. "It's like when you come out to your family, you hope they will be supportive and loving, but if not, you hope over time they will change. That is my attitude about Ohio."

In the fall, Obergefell will serve as a consultant for the Fox 2000 movie being made of Love Wins.

"We sold the movie rights of the book before we had even written or sold the book," he said. "I am working with the screenwriter, answering questions and providing background information. I took him and the associate producer around Cincinnati to show them some key places that are part of the story. They all seem committed to doing the best job possible."

When speculating who might play him, Obergefell suggested Brad Pitt or Matt Bomer.

Obergefell hopes that future generations will learn from his struggle.

"Al and the other attorneys kept all us plaintiffs front and center to remind everyone this was not an abstract case, but about real people suffering real harm," he said. "Every civil rights case starts with a story. Our stories helped change minds and hearts. As President Barack Obama said in his congratulatory phone call to me, 'Your case has brought the country to a better place.'"

He said that one moment stands out from the oral arguments.

"A guy sitting next to me told me that my lawsuit had deeply touched two people he knew," said Obergefell. "The first was his twin brother, who is a Roman Catholic priest. Who was the second, I asked? 'Me,' he answered. 'I'm an evangelical Republican and now I support marriage equality.' We are taught as kids that one or two people can change the world. I never seriously believed that, but this experience helped me understand this is possible. All it takes is for people to fight for something that matters and they believe in."

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