Jim Obergefell never wanted to be the face of the gay rights movement. Now his name will go down in civil rights history

Legends of the Fall

Jim Obergefell never wanted to be the face of the gay rights movement. Now his name will go down in civil rights history
Jim Obergefell

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's. Back then, he was a realtor and 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. For two years, John's health deteriorated.

On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. While John and Jim couldn't marry in their native Ohio, the state would have to 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 a Maryland airport, where they married on the tarmac. John died three months later.

The fight that went to the Supreme Court in 2015 wasn't about whether they could marry; rather, it was about whether Ohio had to list Jim as John's husband on John's death certificate. Along the way, other couples joined the case and broadened its scope. 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. And so 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 journalist Debbie Cenziper published the book Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality. A month ago, I spoke with Obergefell about his life, his book and the next steps in the fight for true equality. Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited for space and clarity.

Orlando Weekly: Your name is forever synonymous with marriage equality. What does that mean to you?

Jim Obergefell: Honestly, for me, it comes down to, you know ... 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, and I fought alongside so many other plaintiffs doing the same thing. For me, it's just humbling and an honor to be part of this movement toward great 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.

It's hard to remember that this Supreme Court decision only came out, what, 14 months ago? 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.

This year, we've seen trans issues take center stage, in North Carolina and elsewhere. [Editor's note: After this interview was conducted, the ACC pulled its football championship out of Charlotte in protest of North Carolina's so-called "bathroom bill" and relocated it to Orlando.] 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 realize that they have been losing and continue to lose even more and more, 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.

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.

You come across in the book as being a low-key guy. Now you're a spokesman for the cause.

I know. I absolutely never wanted to be someone people would recognize and stop on the street. [But] I don't mind it one bit, because people stop me because they want to tell me a story. Every time it happens, it's a gift. It's a thank-you for being willing to fight and being willing 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, when people develop empathy for groups they may not have been familiar with.

You know, it also surprises people when I say that, over the entire two years from the time we got married until the Supreme Court decision, 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. 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.


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