Before Jim Obergefell’s partner of 19 years was diagnosed with ALS, he didn’t anticipate leaving behind his previous life to be an activist, and he definitely did not expect to have his name associated with a historic moment for LGBTQ+ rights.
While he considers his first step into activism to be an accident, every mile of that journey since has been wholly intentional.
Originally scheduled to come to campus in March but delayed because of COVID-19, Obergefell spoke at Northwest Oct. 13 with the intention of sharing a story of love, loss and hope. However, recent statements from two Supreme Court justices suggesting the court overturn the case he gave up his career for imbued more of a fighting spirit into his story.
Obergefell was the lead plaintiff in Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark civil rights case that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015. Late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was a part of the majority in the 5-4 decision, and while the judge who may fill her shoes refuses to say where her vote would fall if a case that would overturn the 2015 decision came before her, Amy Coney-Barrett’s use of the term “sexual preference” raised the hackles of LGBTQ+ rights activists like Obergefell.
Though Coney-Barrett later apologized for using the term, activists are still on edge since Oct. 5. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote on behalf of himself and Justice Samuel Alito in a statement regarding the court’s refusal to hear a case brought forward by Kim Davis that Obergefell v. Hodges has caused “ruinous consequences for religious liberty” and should be overturned.
Davis, a former county clerk in Kentucky, was sued for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and petitioned the Supreme Court to hear her case, which it refused.
“I have some news for Ms. Barrett: it is not sexual preference because that implies a choice,” Obergefell said in his opening remarks. “There is no choice for our sexual orientation or gender identity; it just is. … I didn’t prefer to love John. I simply fell in love with John, almost as if I was born to do it.”
Obergefell, the youngest of six children in a Catholic household, said he was fortunate to be accepted by his family when he came out while attending graduate school. However, the shame and fear surrounding his sexuality that was omnipresent for him in Cincinnati, Ohio, during and shortly after the AIDS crisis, nearly kept him from dating and later marrying John Arthur.
In his years seeking his undergraduate degree, he first met Arthur at a bar, drinking a gin and tonic, and the two parted ways. They met again at the same bar over the same drink years later, but Arthur did not ask him out.
“We didn’t fall in love at first sight,” Obergefell said. “We fell in love at third sight.”
The two reconnected at a New Year’s party a couple months later, and from then on, they were together for 19 years, until one day, Arthur started walking heavily on one foot. A whirlwind of doctor’s visits and tests later, Arthur was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, for which there is no cure.
Over the course of two years, Arthur lost more and more mobility until he was entirely bedridden. Unable to bear sending Arthur into hospice care, Obergefell became Arthur’s full-time caregiver.
The Supreme Court ruled June 23, 2013, in United States v. Windsor that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. That same day, Obergefell and Arthur decided to get married.
Though they had always wanted to get married, Obergefell said they refused to have a marriage in symbolism only. They wanted it to come with all the protections and recognition that opposite-sex marriages received.
The pair married July 11, 2013, in a chartered medical jet on the tarmac in Maryland. Five days later, attorney Al Gerhardstein pointed out to Obergefell that although they were married, the state of Ohio would not recognize their marriage and Arthur’s death certificate would indicate that he was never married. Three days later, the two sued the state of Ohio.
Three days after that, Obergefell’s marriage was legally recognized in his home state. And three months to the day after the Obergefell v. Kasich ruling, Arthur died.
Though the case was won and Obergefell’s marriage was recognized until his husband’s death, his case was appealed, and the case for marriage equality, now with 30 other plaintiffs from four states, went from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to the Supreme Court.
Obergefell never “auditioned” to be a star plaintiff, and it was a matter of 10 minutes difference in paperwork that determined whose name would go on the case, he said it was fortuitous that he became the face of the case.
As a man with no children to protect and enough financial security to leave his job in real estate, he happily took on interviews and TV appearances to fight for same-sex couples’ right to marry.
Thinking of his husband, Obergefell said he openly cried in the courtroom June 26, 2015, when the decision was handed down. Sitting next to a conservative evangelical — the last person he expected to be on his side — who told him he supported him after hearing his story, Obergefell was forever changed.
Since that day, he has continued to tell his and his husband’s story.
“Stories matter,” Obergefell said. “Stories really can change hearts and minds, and I think the face that John’s and my story is a story of love and loss, really had an impact because everyone has loved someone. … And our story made the fight for marriage equality real.”
Obergefell said many members of the LGBTQ+ community are anxious right now with the future of the Supreme Court up in the air. Last week, he said a friend reached out seeking words of comfort for her 12-year-old gay son who feared his right to marry who he loves will be revoked before he is old enough to exercise it.
“I said, ‘David, it’s OK to be scared; it’s OK to be frightened; it’s OK to be worried,’” Obergefell said. “‘But never forget there are millions of people out there; there are countless organizations out there who are dedicated to our rights. They’re fighting for what’s right and making sure that we can be a part of “We the People.”’”