How Jim Obergefell Became an Unlikely Civil Rights Hero | The Pride Issue | Indy Week
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How Jim Obergefell Became an Unlikely Civil Rights Hero 

Five years ago, Jim Obergefell couldn't have imagined how his life would unfurl, how his very name would become synonymous with a cornerstone event in civil rights history, no less than Mildred and Richard Loving or Oliver Brown or Edith Windsor. Back then, he was a realtor and an IT consultant living in Cincinnati, happily in love with his partner of nearly two decades, John Arthur.

Then, one day in 2011, John had trouble walking—dropped foot, it was called. They soon learned that it was a harbinger of the worst possible diagnosis: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the unforgiving disease that most famously claimed Lou Gehrig. For two years, John deteriorated; Jim stayed by his side, faithful to the last, desperately trying not to think of the inevitability that lay ahead.

On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act; while John and Jim still couldn't marry in their native Ohio, the federal government would recognize a marriage performed elsewhere. And so, as John neared his end, they decided to tie the knot. John was bedridden, so they chartered a medical plane to fly him to Maryland, where they married on a tarmac. John died three months later.

The fight that went to the Supreme Court in 2015 wasn't about their nuptials; rather, it was about whether Ohio had to list Jim as John's husband on John's death certificate. Along the way, other gay couples joined the case, broadening its scope to the bigger question of whether it was constitutional to deny same-sex couples marriage rights.

click to enlarge love-wins_-cover.jpg

Jim Obergefell, however, remained the lead plaintiff. The case was styled Obergefell v. Hodges.

On June 26, 2015—two years to the day after DOMA went down—the court struck down all bans on same-sex marriage. The name Obergefell will forever be linked to that landmark decision.

Jim has gone on to become an LGBTQ activist. Earlier this year, he and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Debbie Cenziper published the book Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality. This Friday, Obergefell will be at Cat's Cradle, part of a benefit for Equality NC, where he'll be interviewed by journalist and Hillsborough resident Steven Petrow.

The INDY caught up with Obergefell earlier this month to talk about his book, his legacy, and the next frontier in the struggle for equality.

INDY: I wanted to start by saying the book was wonderful. It's a compelling story and a very personal narrative that sheds light on the human circumstances behind what is a pretty well-known case. The first question I really have for you is, your name, by virtue of being the lead plaintiff, is forever synonymous with the gay rights movement—just like Stonewall, for instance. What does that mean to you?

Jim Obergefell: Honestly, for me, it comes down to, you know ... it makes me, it honestly makes me feel uncomfortable when people tell me, "You're a hero, you're famous, you're a celebrity." I don't feel that way. For me, it just comes down to the fact that I fought for the man I love, fought for my husband, and I fought alongside so many other plaintiffs doing the same thing, and, for me, it's just humbling and an honor to be part of this movement toward greater equality for the LBGTQ community. So, it just makes me laugh when I think about law students having to learn how to pronounce and spell Obergefell. That makes me chuckle.

I honestly have to remind myself sometimes when I hear or see Obergefell v. Hodges that it's talking about me. It just doesn't feel real, but it really all comes down to the fact that I love my husband and we wanted to fight for what was right. And it's an honor to be part of that.

The book was at its most effective when you're telling your story growing up and John Arthur's story growing up and how you guys met, and conveying a human element to a Supreme Court case that is now being studied in law schools. For folks who haven't read your book, what do you want people to know about John?

John was this incredibly witty, generous man. He could charm people from the get-go, and he was incredibly good at making people feel comfortable and valuable.

I always just think of how we used to meet people and, just going into a store, John would strike up a conversation with a person looking in the store and we'd leave that store later and we'd suddenly have a new friend. And we could go back to that store a year later and John would strike up a conversation with that same employee, remembering what they had talked about.

He just had this incredible ability to build relationships and to connect with people. That was his greatest talent.

Your story with John is really sweet. You guys had seen each other out socially, but you became a couple after a New Year's Eve party. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

Yeah, we actually met twice before. I was out with one of my friends who happened to be one of John's friends and fraternity brothers, and we ran into John twice in a row at the same bar over the span of a few months. Nothing really happened.

But then, when I was back in Cincinnati for the holidays, that mutual friend was now one of John's housemates, and John was throwing a New Year's Eve party. A mutual friend invited me. And I went to the party and after that I never left.

That was "third time's the charm" for us. Love at third sight.

He sounds magnetic.

Absolutely. That's a perfect word for it. He was magnetic. He just had this charming, witty, sarcastic, incredible personality, and people liked to be around him.

After the DOMA decision in 2013, you got married in Maryland. Your husband had been diagnosed with ALS. The case was about how you would be listed on his death certificate. I knew that because I'd read the case history, but there are these personal implications to going to court and saying, "My husband is going to die. I want to be listed on this document correctly." And that being one of the major genesis events for the marriage-equality decision. It's really, I don't know ... I guess heartbreaking would be the best word. I can't imagine what that was like.

You're right. I mean, we got married because we could. Because the federal government finally acknowledged us and said we existed. And when we got married in Maryland, you know—we knew Ohio had this constitutional amendment. We knew Ohio wouldn't recognize our marriage.

But I think that, in so many ways, you know things, but until you're actually put in a situation where what that means becomes real, you don't quite get it, and that's how it was for us.

One of the things the book reinforced for me was that, for both you and John, how difficult it was to be a gay youth, even a generation ago. That's not a long time in the course of history. Even if you had a supportive relative or supportive parent, or at least a parent who wasn't antagonistic toward you after you came out, there were so many things that were stacked against you. Even your home city was passing ordinances in the nineties to essentially eradicate what they were calling "special rights" for gays.

Yeah, that was a painful time to live in Cincinnati, I have to tell you. To know that your fellow citizens voted to, you know, allow you to be discriminated against. That's a pretty painful thing.

Let me ask you: Do you think that things have improved as dramatically as I perceive them to?

In Cincinnati? Or in general.

In Cincinnati, but also in general.

There's been, you know, I, I don't think even the term "sea change" is an exaggeration. It's been pretty amazing to see the change in attitudes and acceptance over the past couple of decades. I mean, really, it's been stunning.

One of the things that's struck me is that it's hard to remember that that Supreme Court decision only came out, what, fourteen months ago? And it feels like ...

I know!

... it's just embedded in society and it always has been. And there are still pockets of religious resistance and some muted objections from conservative politicians, but as a whole, society seems to have said, "OK, this is the way things are now, no big deal." This was a fight that a lot of folks thought would take decades and decades to win, and now it's over.

John and I never thought we would marry. I mean, we never thought we would have that ability, and look where we are now.

One of my best friends' partner died about four years ago. They weren't allowed to marry at the time; they lived in Florida. And he spent the next two years of his life fighting in probate against his partner's family who, quite frankly, didn't want to admit that their son was gay, much less that he'd been with someone for eleven years.

What a horrible situation.

I've heard so many stories like that. Even a few years ago there were people who found it offensive that you would even want to be listed on John's death certificate. I just don't know if that's the case anymore.

I'm sure there are some out there, you're right. You know, I go back to, in the run-up to the Supreme Court case and ruling, poll after poll after poll showed more than sixty percent of Americans were in favor of marriage equality. So, you know, it doesn't surprise me that it feels like that. Everyone's like, "OK! Good! Marriage! It's done." It's still rather stunning it happened so quickly—or, relatively quickly.

In North Carolina, trans issues have taken center stage. Why do you think that is? I have a sense that some people needed to find a new target after they lost the marriage issue.

That's exactly what I think. They realized, you know, "Well, we lost marriage." They realize that they have been losing and continue to lose even more and more just in general, in terms of the acceptance and attitudes toward the LGB part of our community.

You know, more and more cities are passing antidiscrimination policies. States are. And they realized they were losing. And it scares them. And they have now, they decided to then target the most vulnerable community. Absolutely, I'm right there with you. I think that's what's causing it.

What would you say to trans kids, who are watching themselves become the targets of this sort of government animosity? Having been in Cincinnati, when you were singled out and targeted, what would you say to them?

I would say, "Surround yourself with people who love you, respect you, and treat you the same as anyone else." That's what John and I did. You know, what we went through when this law was passed and, you know, there were people in Cincinnati who would love nothing more than to deny us all rights. Our circle of friends, our family, loved us without reservation. And that's how we were able to deal with that. Because we were surrounded by people who just treated us like we were a married couple. So, for me, that's what worked.

I know that isn't always easy to do, though. But they need to find that friend and find that family member or group of people who love and support them no matter what. And I want them also to know that I'm on their side. The LGB part of our community, we are on their side, and we are fighting for them. We are speaking out about their needs, their rights, the danger that they're in.

We're fighting for them because we're experiencing gains in the overall community, but we know just how much danger they're in and how fragile their world is. So we have their back.

I mean, I know that won't necessarily always solve things or make every experience easier, but we're here, and we're fighting for them, and we won't stop.

One of the things that HB 2 did, in addition to the bathroom issue, is that it preempted any local nondiscrimination ordinances. North Carolina is one of the states where you can get married on Sunday and get fired for being gay on Monday. So I wanted to ask you: What are the next steps for the gay rights movement, having secured marriage equality?

I think the fight for us now is to work toward getting nondiscrimination policies at the local level, state, and the federal level. You know, if we could get the Equality Act to pass and update the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, that one accomplishment would have the most wide-ranging impact. So, when I think of where we need to go and what we need to continue working for and fighting toward, that's, that's what I see.

You come across in the book as being a fairly low-key guy who never sought out attention. Now you're a spokesman for the cause, whether you want to be or not.

I know. I know. Um, you know, this isn't something I ever wanted. I absolutely never wanted to be someone people would recognize and stop on the street. But it happened. And it happens across the country. It happens on a regular basis. And, you know, when I'm with people, and they see it happen, oftentimes one of the first things they ask is, "Does that bother you? Do you hate that? Do you wish it would stop?" You know, I don't mind it one bit, because people stop me because they want to tell me a story. They want to share with me what that decision or what John's and my fight and the fight of the other plaintiffs meant to them or someone they love. They want to show me pictures. They want to shake my hand or give me a hug. So, every time it happens, it's a gift. It's a thank-you for being willing to fight and being willing to, to fight for John, fight for marriage, fight for people across the country.

So, yeah, I never ever wanted to be in a position like that, but I did it because I loved John. I'm more than happy to give up some of my anonymity to lead a different life, because I know what I was part of has had such a great, positive impact on people across the country.

That's how society changes. Change occurs when people can relate and develop empathy for groups they may not have been familiar with. And I don't think there's any way you can read your book, or learn about your history with John, and not feel some sort of empathy.

I agree, and I've said that almost from the start. You know, it also surprises people when I say, over the entire two years from beginning of our, you know, from the time we got married until the Supreme Court decision, almost two years, I got four pieces of mail that were less than supportive. That's it.

And people seem surprised by that, but I realized, almost from the start, that our story—everyone loves someone. Everyone loses someone they love. So it was this universal experience that every person can relate to, and I think that helps. It helps change people's minds. Not everyone knows someone in the LGBTQ community. And when people come out and tell their story and help people understand that we're not this scary thing that you might think we are, that we're no different from anyone else, that's how minds change.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Unlikely Hero"

  • The lead plaintiff in the marriage equality case talks about the fight that put his name in the history books

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