Jim Obergefell was the lead plaintiff in the landmark marriage equality case Obergefell v. Hodges. Jim met and fell in love with John Arthur, his late husband, in 1992. In 2011, John was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a fatal neurological illness. Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act with the Windsor decision in June 2013, John and Jim married aboard a medical jet on a Maryland airport Tarmac. They then filed suit in federal court against the State of Ohio to demand recognition of their lawful marriage on John’s impending death certificate. John died in October 2013, and the State of Ohio appealed to the Sixth District Court of Appeals. In November 2014, the Sixth District Court of Appeals ruled against John and Jim and plaintiffs from five other cases in Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, and Tennessee, setting the stage for an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court consolidated all six cases into one and heard oral arguments on April 28, 2015. On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, bringing marriage equality to the entire United States. Jim considers himself an accidental activist, one who became involved in an issue due to extenuating circumstances, and he is now committed to continuing the fight for civil rights and equality for all Americans. Jim was born and raised in Sandusky, Ohio and he earned a degree in Secondary Education and German from the University of Cincinnati.
The reddit team is helping me do this live from NYC.
I’ve read your story before and I still get choked up when I read it again. The wedding on the tarmac always get me right in the feels. I know losing the love of your life is extremely painful but I want to personally thank you for everything you have done for all of us in the lgbt community. I know you would give it all up to have him back and I wish we could do that for you, but I’m so thankful for you two and everyone who fought so that I too can marry the woman I love. My question is, what can I do for you? What can I do to honor your beloved for giving me something I never thought possible?
Wow…everything you just said is thank you enough for me, and to know that you have someone you love and will fight for. Just knowing that people across the country can be married everywhere is what makes it all so worth it. Even though John died 3 months to the day after our first win I would still go back and do it again. It was the right thing to do. Be proud of who you are, enjoy that relationship, fight for the person you love and raise a glass of champagne some day in John’s honor. We loved champagne. That’s my request: raise a glass in his honor, love the person you love — that’s the best thanks I could ever get.
What was/is your favorite roller coaster at Cedar Point?
The Blue Streak. It’s that old wooden roller coaster that’s rickety and you raise a little out of your seat when it goes down. That’s my nostalgia choice. From a thrill point of view I love the Millennium Force. I have to go back and ride them all again and see if they’ve changed.
Would you rather fight 1 Scalia-sized duck or 100 duck-sized Scalias?
[laughs]…oh god…I’d rather fight 1 Scalia-sized duck. Cause in essence I’ve already fought Scalia in court and I won. Also ducks make me laugh so while fighting him I’d laugh the whole time.
Whether you realize it or not, you’ve immortalized yourself in history. My big question is…how do you think this will change, not just the U.S. but the world? Also, do you see any future unintended consequences good/bad coming from this?
I think this ruling is already changing the US and will continue to change the US. It’s one more step for the LGBT community coming out and making us part of society and culture and breaking those preconceived notions. As people marry, their neighbors and community members see that it’ll help to break down those preconceived notions. It’s one more step along the path of the LGBT community becoming full equal Americans. I think its had an impact across the world as well. In countries where the community is less active or more threatened those people will look to the United States for hope and drive on how to change. In some ways it’s hard to imagine all the impact and effects, and I recognize there will be some negative reactions which we’ve already seen with government officials refusing to marry couples, but it’s an ongoing process and to have our Supreme Court to say “you deserve rights and respect” that goes a long way to moving our country forward.
Jim, thanks for your investment in taking your case all the way to the Supreme Court. Do you have advice for other social justice causes in the process, and maybe even cost of, challenging things all the way to our courts’ highest levels?
That’s a good question. I think one of the most important things for any social justice cause is to build a sense of community with organizations. I started with my local civil rights attorney but then the ACLU, Lambda legal, HRC got involved. These are all different organizations. While they may have had difficulties in the past like any organizations can have, they all worked together for a common cause. Any social justice fight needs to concentrate on building community for our common betterment and not fight against each other. We have to realize we are all fighting for the same things. As far as the cost of getting to the Supreme Court I look at that from my personal perspective, I invested a lot of time, effort. John and I from the moment we decided to file suit we knew there would be a cost to it. It was something that was very important to us and a very easy decision to make. For me the cost has been very little from a personal point of view. I was more than happy to give up my time, my effort and emotions.
Did you know when you left the Court that you had won?
When I walked out after oral arguments in April. I wasn’t confident that we had won. I really kept myself from reading too much into the questioning during the arguments. I didn’t know if they believed what they were asking, or trying to see if what they were asking could be disproved. When I walked out I went back to my innate optimism. I walked out thinking we’re going to win, but if I’m honest there was doubt as well. In that court especially there have been decisions that have surprised people and I was hoping my case wouldn’t be one of them. Being with the other plaintiffs there we had to walk out feeling optimistic. It meant so much not only to me but my co-plaintiffs.
What was the hardest part of the no doubt many enduring court and legal processes you had to go through?
For me the hardest part was to listen to state officials, people who are supposed to represent me, to hear them in court arguing that I’m less than other citizens. That was by far the most painful thing. To have your government fight against you. To stand up in a court room and say you don’t matter, you are less than, you are second class. I would say another difficult moment for me is when the Sixth District Court of Appeals ruled against us. The ruling was difficult to read. It was hurtful. That was one of those moments when I had that internal discussion. I could have said I was done. John had passed away by that point. But I knew I was on the right side, and I had to keep fighting for my husband. To step back and quit and not to fight was something that I couldn’t do. It was a painful moment, but it was a moment that helped bring back in to clarity why we started this fight, and why I needed to continue.
How did you and John meet?
John and I met in the summer of 1992 for the first time. I was in Graduate school and hadn’t come out yet. I was with a friend who happened to be John’s friend and we met at a bar. John and I were introduced but nothing happened. Couple months later I was back and happened to be at the same bar and John was there again. John was there with a friend to teach her how to talk to men. I don’t remember any sparks flying, but our friend Melissa told John “that guy likes you”, and he said “what guy?” So obviously I wasn’t very memorable at the time. A couple months later it was the holidays and I was back again and I got invited to John’s house by a mutual friend for a new years eve party and I never left. John 27 and I was 26 and I just celebrated my 49th birthday.
Did this Pride feel any more monumental to you?
After the decision came out I had the opportunity to be in two parades that weekend. I was in the Cincinnati parade and that was incredibly emotional to ride through the streets of my hometown and have people calling out my name. I found myself crying. Going to San Francisco pride parade blew me away. It was long and I cried the entire time. I was overwhelmed by the love I felt. The thousands of people who as I rode by were just mouthing thank you at me and crying. That parade was one of the most overwhelming experiences I had because it was nothing but love and joy. It felt more raw and less of a crazy party, but more of a celebratory party. People were celebrating that our world had just become a better world. It was really an unbelievably beautiful experience to be there and feel that it was different from past prides. People I spoke with there said the same thing. That it was much more about love and celebrating, but not the wild crazy celebrating. Celebrating the fact that we were all alive and the ruling from the Supreme Court. It’s something I’ll never forget.
Whom do you want to play yourself in the movie? And your partner?
That’s a tough one for me to even think about right now. Who do you all think? I must say for me it has to be someone who looks good in a bow-tie [fixes bowtie].
How worried were you that the Supreme Court might not rule in your favor?
Actually two years ago today was the date that Federal Court in Cincinnati ruled in our favor. Even from that initial court hearing I was optimistic. I knew we were fighting for the right things. From that point on when we won in Federal Court it was encouraging. When the Sixth District Court of Appeals ruled against us it was painful. But there was that silver lining with the split in the various appeals courts which set us up for the Supreme Court. I went into that feeling optimistic. It was that certainty that we were fighting for the right thing. During that two months I never let myself think about the possibility of losing. It was too painful to think of them coming back and telling us that we were not equal. I could not waste any time thinking about the alternative because it was just too scary.
I am not from USA, and as I understand, same sex marriage tends to ignite a lot of tensions, as an issue. Did that ever lead to physical attacks or mental troubles to you and your family?
I can honestly say John and I have been very fortunate. From the moment we filed our suit and the two years after I received two pieces of mail that weren’t threats, but disagreed with our fight. After the decision this June I received a threat on Facebook but that’s been it. I’ve experienced no physical threats or issues from any person in the US. I realize that I can say I am fortunate. Unfortunately too many are unable to say that. We only have to think of Matthew Shepherd, Harvey Milk. The trans community is threatened and murdered. In Turkey there was a pride event that was broken up by the people. People were beaten. Unfortunately that’s too common around the world. There are people that don’t think the LGBT community deserve equality or even to live. We need to spread the message around the world that we are equal. We want the same things. We deserve to live our lives with the same rights and protections as anyone else. So while I can say I’m lucky that I haven’t experienced that as of yet; I know too many people who can’t say that. As a species and as humanity we need to address that. I’m not sure what all the solutions are, but it’s something that has to happen.
When future con law students read about your case, what do you want them to know?
I would like future law students to know that my case as well as the cases of the other plaintiffs that really it was about love. Telling our government that our love is just as worthy as any other love. The fact that standing up for that love led to such a momentous change proves that it’s a very powerful force. Although the law can be antiseptic and divorced from emotion the fact that ours was based on love I think it improved the law because they could look at us and recognize that we deserve the same amount of respect as anyone else.
I understand there have been many legal battles concerning same sex marriage. In your opinion, what was the special aspect of your case that enabled it to make it all the way to the supreme court?
I think my case made it to the Supreme Court because of the personal basis for the case. Everyone knows someone who dies and I think our case was based on John’s impending death. It was a very specific fight within the state of Ohio and made it easy to move forward.
Did you see the White House lit up as a rainbow? How did that make you feel?
I didn’t have a chance to actually see it, but I had a lot of friends who did and they showed me pictures. It really made me feel proud. Having the chance to speak with President Obama and knowing what an ally he is. In the court room that day I felt more like an equal American than I had in a very long time. Then to see the President’s home and the symbol of our country lit up in rainbow colors brought it home that I live in a country that is on my side. It really made me happy. I wish I could have seen it in person, but I’m happy I saw the pictures, and having a lot of friends see it in person made it even better.