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The Accidental Activist: Jim Obergefell’s Journey to Marriage Equality

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WeddingWire employees on the steps of the Supreme Court June 26, 2015. Jim Obergefell was the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case decided that day. 

For Jim Obergefell, a real estate broker turned lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court’s most important nod to marriage equality, it still doesn’t sit well that his name will be remembered among the likes of Oliver Brown (as in Brown v. Board of Education) and Jane Roe (as in Roe v. Wade).

“I never ever wanted to be someone that people would recognize,” he said during a visit to WeddingWire’s headquarters in Chevy Chase, Md. on June 8. “Never once thought about my name, my face, going down in history books. That’s still a strange, surreal thing for me to think about.”

Obergefell’s journey to the Supreme Court began in 1992 when he met and fell in love with John Arthur. He told WeddingWire that the two talked about marriage many times over the course of their relationship, but were prohibited by the laws of Ohio, which had a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

“We never wanted to get married and have it just be symbolic,” Obergefell explained. “We wanted it to be legal and valid in our government’s eyes.”

In 2011, Arthur was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a fatal illness that kills neurons in the brain. Obergefell became his partner’s full-time caregiver, and, by the time one section of the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down on June 26, 2013, Arthur was bedridden with limited ability to move his limbs.

Yet, and still, the couple watched the news together, which paved the way for same-sex couples to receive full federal benefits, and made plans to travel to Maryland to be married.

“I simply leaned over to John, hugged him and kissed him, and said, ‘Let’s get married.’” Obergefell said.

They chartered a medical jet, flew to Baltimore and were married on the tarmac at Baltimore-Washington International Airport by Arthur’s Aunt Paulette.

“We got married and that’s all we wanted to do—simply have the federal government say, ‘Yeah you exist, you matter.’ We had no plans to do anything else,” Obergefell said.

Fate intervened when friends of the couple met a civil rights attorney at a party. The attorney had read about the couple in the local newspaper, and asked their friends if they’d be interested in meeting him.

The couple met the attorney, and, eight days after their wedding, filed suit in federal court for Ohio to recognize their out-of-state marriage when Arthur died. By day 11, Obergefell was in federal court when the judge ruled in the couple’s favor.

After Arthur died, the state of Ohio appealed the decision. The judge in the appellate case ruled against the couple, and they decided to file suit in the Supreme Court.

“I think everyone knows how that turned out,” Obergefell joked.

On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court struck down bans on same-sex marriages in a 5-4 decision, recognizing marriage equality for all couples in the United States

The decision to fight the case in the highest court of the United States wasn’t difficult.

“From the start, I’ve said over and over that at that moment when Al pulled out a blank death certificate and told us what would happen, and what Ohio would do when John died, it was a really easy decision to make,” Obergefell said.

“We shouldn’t be told that, no other couple like us should be told that,” he continued. “Even knowing that John was dying. Even giving a part of our time together to sit in a courtroom, to do media, to do all those things—it was simply the right thing to do. I always looked at it as, all I’m doing is living up to my promises to love, honor and protect him.”

Watch Jim Obergefell’s full interview with Tim Chi, chief executive officer of WeddingWire, and Kathryn Hamm, publisher of WeddingWire. Read Obergefell’s full story in his new book, Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality.

Head to social media and use #WeDoLove to tell us what marriage equality means to you!

 

Although I've spent the last decade riffing on everything from suburban politics to race in media, documenting love stories as content manager of GayWeddings.com definitely takes the cake. A proud alumna of Howard University's journalism program, I've written for Parents.com, The Huffington Post, xoJane and Essence magazine. When I'm not writing, I'm debating the merits of Drake, obsessing over frozen yogurt or plotting my next international adventure. I want to feature you on GayWeddings.com! Always feel free to drop me a line at community [at] gayweddings.com to share your engagement, wedding and love stories.