Last year saw a monumental Supreme Court decision: the affirmation of the constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry. It was a long-awaited victory for much of the country, but Jim Obergefell, the named plaintiff in the case Obergefell v. Hodges that prompted the decision, had a particularly personal relationship to it. Fighting for love and fueled by love, he had become, in his words, an “accidental activist.”
Obergefell came out to his large Catholic family in his mid 20s, and in 1992 began a long-term relationship with John Arthur. After meeting twice at a Cincinnati bar, the two met for a third time at a party thrown by Arthur, where sparks flew. Soon enough they fell deeply in love and forged a quiet, happy life together in Cincinnati. They worked with one another as consultants in IT, followed a shared passion for collecting art, and enjoyed an extensive network of friends and family. Their relationship was never an issue among the people who knew them — but living as an openly gay couple in Cincinnati was at times very difficult. In fact, after an amendment was passed in the city that banned laws protecting the LGBTQ community, Cincinnati was dubbed “The City without Pity”. Ohio’s legislative opposition to gays became especially problematic for the couple in 2013, when Arthur’s illness of ALS worsened and Obergefell proposed marriage.
Although Ohio did not allow same-sex marriage, Maryland did. So Obergefell raised $14,000 to hire a chartered medical jet to fly them to the Baltimore airport, where the two men were married by Arthur’s aunt on the tarmac. Yet despite this perfectly legal marriage, Ohio was going to refuse to recognize Obergefell as Arthur’s spouse on his death certificate. Unwilling to accept this injustice, the newly married couple decided to sue the state of Ohio, and the case, given its story of love in the face of terminal illness, quickly received national attention. Obergefell was aware that winning his case could help guarantee rights for LGBTQ Ohioans. But he could not have expected that his case would rise as high as the Supreme Court, where it became clear that something greater was at stake. In June 2015, Obergefell won the case with a 5-4 majority — and the rest is literally history.
Now, a year after the Supreme Court decision, Obergefell has teamed up with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Debbie Cenziper to chronicle LOVE WINS: The Lovers and Lawyers who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality (William Morrow/June 2016), an in-depth look at the case that led to nationwide marriage equality. The book interweaves the stories of Obergefell and his late husband, and the decades-long career of civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein; readers will get to know not only the facts of the case but also the faces of its advocates. Exactingly recounted, Love Wins is urgent in its subject matter and unforgettable in its emotion.
From the beginning, Obergefell and Cenziper were in agreement that the book should be about more than just one couple and their lawyer. “Throughout the entire process,” Obergefell says, “I knew it was never just about me.” The book introduces other plaintiffs ad some of lawyers in the case as well. It took many people to achieve justice for many people — and now Obergefell’s case has granted marriage equality not only for millions of Americans today but also for generations of Americans to come. “One person, a group of people, can actually do something that impacts the world, that makes our world a better place. I discovered that it really can happen.” Today, even Obergefell’s home city of Cincinnati has changed in its attitude towards LGBTQ issues — Cincinnati has since elected an openly-gay council member and in fact was the second city in the country to ban conversion therapy.
Since the Supreme Court ruling, Obergefell has embraced his newfound role as a civil rights activist. He has worked with organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign and Equality Ohio, and has been honored with awards from organizations such as Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders (SAGE). Foreign Policy magazine named him one of its 2015 Global Thinkers.