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Obergefell recalls marriage-equality fight
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2016-10-19

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The Plaza Ballroom of downtown Chicago's Hyatt Regency Hotel was the setting for LGBTQ equality advocate Jim Obergefell to engage in an equally intimate Oct. 11 conversation with Human Rights Campaign ( HRC ) Field Director Lynne Bowman, diversity consultant Eric Lueshen and a sold-out audience before signing copies of Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality—the 2016 book he co-authored with Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Debbie Cenziper.

The event was part of A Hyatt World, with backing from the organization's LGBTQ employee resource group ( ERG ).

Hyatt partnered with the HRC on the occasion of National Coming Out Day to celebrate the lives and indelible contributions to marriage equality in the United States made by Obergefell and his late husband John Arthur leading up to the historic June 2016, 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ( USSC ) decision in the Obergefell v. Hodges case.

Obergefell recalled quite opposing coming out experiences for himself and Arthur—a man he knew by the third date as "The person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with."

"I was really lucky," Obergefell said. "My dad and the rest of my family were great about it. From the moment he was born, [John's] dad was disappointed in him. His most supportive relationship was with his Aunt Paulette. He credited her with saving his life and helping him not commit suicide. She was a fantastic person who married us."

The couple lived openly in Cincinnati, Ohio, despite the political and social antagonism which surrounded them.

"We never experienced overt discrimination," Obergefell said. "John had this amazing power to connect with people. He really made people feel like they mattered, were valued and worthwhile. He was incredibly witty and he always looked at life as 'the glass is half full.' He helped me become a better person."

It was an attitude that Arthur maintained even on the summer 2011 day that he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ( ALS ).

"He wasn't angry. He wasn't bitter," Obergefell recalled. "He cried and broke down because he was worried about me."

The neurological disease moved with characteristic, lethal swiftness.

"By March of 2013, he was bedridden," Obergefell said. "I was his full time caregiver doing everything for him—feeding, washing and caring for him in every possible way."

When, on June 26, 2013, the USSC ruled in United States v. Windsor that the Defense of Marriage Act ( DOMA ) was unconstitutional, Obergefell leaned over his husband, kissed him and said, "Let's get married. The reason I did that was spontaneous but it was our first ever opportunity to actually have our government say that we exist and we mattered. That was all we ever wanted."

Helped by family and friends, the couple traveled by a chartered medical jet to be married by Aunt Paulette on the airport tarmac in Baltimore, Maryland.

It was friends who put them in touch with celebrated Ohio civil-rights lawyer Alphonse Gerhardstein.

"Five days after we got married, Al came to our home and he pulled out a death certificate," Obergefell said. "We knew that Ohio wouldn't recognize our marriage but that was an abstract concept. Suddenly here was something real; a painful, hurtful, hateful result of that amendment. It broke our hearts but it really made us mad."

They filed the following Monday.

In October 2013, Arthur died.

After what Obergefell called "a pretty offensive decision" in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Gerhardstein, the American Civil Liberties Union ( ACLU ) of Ohio and Lambda Legal filed joint lawsuits in the USSC.

Obergefell recalled oral arguments in April 2015 and, in particular, one raised that same sex marriage should be decided through a "democratic process."

"I didn't sit with the other plaintiffs, I stood in line for a seat in the public [area]," he added. "Even from our very first hearing in federal court, when the 'democratic process' argument came up, I just remember Al saying, 'The shortest way to abridge the rights of a minority is to allow the majority to vote on it.' Our story resonated with people because everyone loves someone and everyone loses someone they love. It was a real story about the harm these laws did."

Obergefell remembered that on June 26, 2015, "The atmosphere was different. Every day, tickets [to the viewing area] were handed out that were orange. That morning, they were lavender. It was hard not to take that as a good sign."

Bowman noted the "[more than] 200 anti-LGBT bills" introduced "In 34 states across the country" that followed the USSC decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.

"After marriage equality, I remember multiple conversations between people who said 'you won marriage equality so the gay rights movement is done right?'" Obergefell said. "I realized how much we have to tell stories and how much we have to educate people. A year-and-half ago, if I had a transgender friend, I didn't know it. I now have a lot of transgender friends. We need allies but we also have to be allies within our own community."


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