The morning I called Jim Obergefell, the first thing we talked about wasn’t the historic role he played in legalizing marriage equality across the United States but his 513 area code. We were both born and raised in Ohio.
Coincidentally, the seminal coming-of-age queer film Edge of Seventeen was set in Sandusky the same year Obergefell graduated high school in the Cleveland suburb most famously known as home to the effervescent whirligigs of Cedar Point. When he sued the state of Ohio in 2013 for his right to be listed on the death certificate of his late husband, John Arthur, he was a resident of Cincinnati, my hometown.
Just days before we spoke, Obergefell announced plans to move back to his home state after relocating to Washington, D.C. some years ago to pursue Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark Supreme Court case that bore his surname. (The anniversary of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority ruling is June 26, 2105). We discussed Occasional Magic, a collection of essays originally featured in the live storytelling series The Moth, in which he discusses the couple’s long fight for equality.
It’s an emotional tour-de-force, but in a lighter moment, he expresses condolences to all the law students who will be forced to pronounce his surname for generations: It’s Ober-ga-fell.
During our half-hour interview, I’m struck by the parallels between our stories. When reflecting on the advances in rights over the past few decades, he briefly mentions Article 12, an infamous 1993 ballot measure banning civil rights protections for Cincinnati’s queer and transgender citizens. Compared to “Jim Crow for the gays” by local press at the time, the amendment was finally overturned in 2004. The push to repeal Article 12 was the first political campaign I ever worked on, volunteering to fold brochures and send out mailers with other members of my high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance on the weekends.
These connections are a reminder that Obergefell’s story is ours. While not all of us share a birthplace with a civil rights icon, we have felt his struggles: to be treated with dignity and respect and to have our love be given equal weight under the law. As the Supreme Court prepares to hear yet another landmark case—this time on employment protections—that shared struggle is clearly not over.
You’ve been interviewed about your marriage to John probably hundreds of times in the past five or so years. What compelled you to tell that story again?
After I speak, so many people will say, “I’m sorry, that just must be so difficult for you to go through all of that again.” Honestly, I love talking about him. Nothing makes me happier than talking about John and our relationship—even with the bad parts, even talking about losing him. He was the most important person in my life, and it brings me joy to talk about him. Even when I cry a little bit, it keeps him alive. That’s part of what The Moth allowed me to do: Keep John alive.
Also, stories matter. Harvey Milk said coming was the only way people are going to change. Our story had an impact on people around the country because everybody loves someone. Everybody loses someone they love. It’s those stories that help people understand the harm that laws can do. It’s those stories that help people realize, “There are real-life people who are being harmed. Maybe I need to rethink my opinion on this.”
Shortly after you met John, you mention in your story that you knew he was the one you want it to be with. How did you know?
I just did. I can’t explain it in any way other than that. I just knew this was someone I wanted to spend my life with. I run my life by emotion, and that’s just what I felt.
But the specific moment I will throw out there is seven weeks later when he gave me a diamond ring. I was in Columbus, Ohio with some of my students because I was the director of student activities at Tiffin University, and we were in Columbus for a conference. John drove up from Cincinnati and surprised me with a ring. The ring that he gave me was a carat total, but it was five stones, channel set. He said, “It’s the same but different than the ring I have.” He had a one-carat solitaire. That really kind of became our theme over the years: the same but different.
The two of you were willing to wait until the government would recognize your relationship to get formally married back in the early 90s before the movement started making considerable games. How long did you think you would be waiting?
Honestly, we never thought it would happen. When [Baehr v. Miike] was happening in Hawaii, John’s stepmother at the time said, “If marriage becomes legal in Hawaii, I’m taking the entire family up there so you guys can get married.” That didn’t happen. That led to the Federal Defense of Marriage Act and then the states started piling on.
For us, marriage meant something more than just a symbolic ceremony. If we had gotten married, it would’ve just been symbolic. And that wasn’t good enough for us. We were committed to each other, our relationship mattered, and if we were going to marry—which is a civil institution—it had to mean something legally before we would do it. We felt married. Our family and friends considered us as a married couple, and until we were ever able to marry and actually have it mean something, we would wait. If we never got to marry and have it mean something, that’s just the way things work out.
The movement sustained so many losses before we started winning—it was just loss after loss year after year. As someone who hoped that the government would one day move to recognize your marriage, what did it feel like at the time to be gay in the U.S.?
In the early 90s, the Cincinnati City Council passed a civil rights ordinance that included the community. There was a backlash, and that backlash resulted in a ballot initiative that our neighbors voted for and passed. That ballot initiative updated the city charters to say that no law in Cincinnati could ever be passed to protect us and that hurt. Here we were in a city where we were involved, productive members of society in a state where I was born and raised. We were being told point blank: “You don’t matter.”
In general, it wasn’t a good time to be gay, but I also knew it was better than it had been previously. Twenty years before that, if John and I had been a couple, would every job where we worked together, would every manager and every coworker know we were a couple? No. Would our families have treated us like a married couple 20 years earlier? Absolutely not.
While there were some very obvious things that were painful and hurtful, it was hard to say that we weren’t making some progress.
For people who have never had to think about these kinds of things, why is it so important to have the full rights of marriage when you’re in a relationship with someone who has a chronic condition as John did?
If something happened and he ended up in the hospital, would I have the right to see him? Would they allow me to go back and see him? Would I have the right to make decisions on his behalf? Like Edie Windsor, would I be hit with a huge tax bill over his estate? All of those things came into play.
John’s grandparents bought a set of cemetery plots in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, and John loved that place. He loved to go walk the cemetery and go have lunch in the family plot. His plan was always that he would be either interred or memorialized there and I would be next to him. That was the plan for his mom. When his mom passed away, we were at that cemetery and John wanted to select the spot for her, but he also wanted to reserve the spot next to her for her boyfriend of 18 years. That’s when he discovered that when his grandparents bought the plots, they put in a rule that only direct descendants and lawfully married spouses could be interred or memorialized in those family plots. That meant her boyfriend of 18 years would not be able to be there eventually. And then we realized that also means that I can’t memorialize next to John in that family plot.
There are so things about having a legally recognized marriage that people don’t think about until it impacts them. Loving someone and building a life together is what we all want. And yet here it was being used against us because we weren’t the right kind of couple.
When the two of you stood on the tarmac and exchanged vows, did you anticipate that your marriage ceremony would trigger this kind of backlash from the state of Ohio? There’s this moment in particular in the story where you described the fear of receiving his death certificate in the mail with your name redacted that’s just devastating.
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What an utterly surreal and wonderful experience to see my things in a museum exhibit. Seeing our wedding rings again made me cry. The @newseum did an amazing job with their “Rise Up – Stonewall and the LGBTQ Rights Movement” exhibit! There’s so much more than just the story of marriage equality, so go see it before it closes at the end of the year. #lovewins #stonewall #lgbtq #civilrights #lgbtqequality #gay #gayrights #riseup
When we got married, we had no plans to do anything about the issue with the death certificate. We just wanted to get married. We wanted to be able to legally call each other husband and husband.
It wasn’t until later—when we learned that his death certificate would be wrong when he died—that we decided to fight and file suit. After we lost in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, every time I checked the mail, I thought, “Is this going to be the day I get an updated certificate from the state of Ohio telling me that our relationship never existed and erasing my name as his surviving spouse?” That’s a horrible thing to worry about when you do something as mundane as checking your mailbox. I still don’t understand why Ohio and other states felt it necessary to demean people and to treat people the way they did.
If we hadn’t made that decision to file suit, our marriage would have been erased at the moment he died. His death certificate from the moment he died would’ve been wrong. It would have ignored the most significant relationship in our life. Our society just wants to pretend that we don’t exist, that we’re not real, and that no one could possibly be LGBTQ. Some of these laws and policies, that’s what they’re trying to do: pretend we don’t exist and erase us from existence. If they can’t do that, then they’re just going to demean us as much as possible.
It’s been almost four years now since the Supreme Court ruled on marriage equality. What has it been like to see the repeated attacks on LGBTQ rights since then?
It’s disheartening. It’s scary. It’s disappointing. It’s frightening. It angers me. I just don’t understand why there’s this group of people who get joy out of attacking people who are different from them. I don’t care what someone’s holy book says or what their interpretation of their holy book says about me as a gay man. We’re not a Christian country. We are a country of laws that are supposed to be blind to religion, and we’re supposed to have the right to religious freedom, which also means that I can’t use my religion to force laws on someone else. It disgusts me that there are people out there claiming that everything they’re doing, they’re doing out of their right for religious freedom. They’re demanding something that’s the antithesis of it.
Under the Obama administration, so much progress had happened. This country was moving in the right direction for so many different minority groups. Now here we have an administration that is doing everything in its power to reverse course and to take the entire country—not just in regards to LGBTQ rights but minority rights of all sorts—back to the 19th century. Those weren’t the good old days. They never were the good old days.
But I find hope in the fact that our children younger generations and younger people don’t understand why differences have to be used to divide us. Martin Luther King Jr said “the arc of the moral universe is long,” and it’s feeling long right now. But I still have faith in that concept.
You expressed your heartbreak last year when Justice Anthony Kennedy announced he would be stepping down from the Supreme Court. Kennedy was known to be a right-leaning centrist. He was replaced by Brett Kavanaugh, a justice who’s more conservative than everyone on the bench except for Clarence Thomas. Do you fear the court could roll back marriage equality?
Yes and no. It isn’t just the Supreme Court that this administration has illegitimately stacked—Merrick Garland, anyone?—but it’s courtrooms across the nation that this administration is filling with people who are opponents of equality. It scares me how many judges around the country have been appointed by this administration.
Where I take a little bit of comfort is that if a case reached the Supreme Court and it was the same court we have now, even though Chief Justice Roberts was against marriage equality in our ruling, he’s a bigger supporter of precedents—not taking away rights that have previously been granted by the court—than he is about his feelings about marriage equality not being constitutional. That’s the only thing that gives me hope. If it came before the court, I really hope the Chief Justice would flip and be on the side of keeping marriage equality. If the court changes, all bets are off. I’m really going to be scared if this president gets to nominate someone else.
It’s an opportune moment to reflect on the history and the future of equality given that this June mark the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. What does Pride mean to you this year?
Pride means to me that we have to keep fighting. We have to keep fighting as a thank you to those countless people in the decades and the hundreds of years before us who lived life fully closeted and unable to be anything even remotely close to who they are. And then in the middle part of the last century, it was the people who risked everything by starting those marches in Philadelphia and later New York to say: “We are homosexuals and we deserve rights.” We owe it to them to keep fighting and to keep their legacy alive. So for me, pride means being proud of the people who came before me and remembering them and continuing their work.
It’s not so much pride in myself. It’s pride in what they have done, the world that they helped create for me.