Jim Obergefell on why love always wins

A year ago today the US Supreme Court made a landmark decision. History was made when the USA’s highest court ruled in favour of the plaintiffs in Obergefell v Hodges, a decision that granted everyone the right to marry a partner of the same gender.

A short time later President Obama called Jim Obergefell, and as the world listened in, as President Obama thanked Jim for fighting for his right to have his marriage recognised.

Jim Obergefell has been described as an accidental activist. More than 20 years ago Jim fell in love with John Arthur. The couple lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, a place where LGBT people were regularly picked up by the police or fired from their jobs because of their sexuality.

JOHN&JIM-LOCAL: Thursday July 11, 2013: "I now pronounce you husband and husband." said officiant Paulette Roberts as Jim Obergefell, left and John Arthur are married on the tarmac of Signature Flight Support at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in Glen Burnie Maryland around 11AM Thursday morning. Arthur described Richards "As my favorite relative" They're in a Stratos Jet Charters medical transport Learjet 35. The Enquirer/Glenn Hartong.

In 2013 Jim and John traveled to Maryland where same sex marriage was legal and exchanged vows. John was dying from the crippling neurodegenerative disease Amyotophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). They exchanged their vows on the private plane they had chartered for the journey.

But back in Ohio they union was not recognised. John’s death certificate would describe him as a single man, and Jim would not only have mourn the passing of his husband but would also be denied acknowledgement of the life they had shared.

The couple met Al Gerhardstein, a lawyer who had spent more than thirty years fighting civil rights cases. Together they began a long and grueling battle which was a David and Goliath challenge. Jim and John’s marriage sadly was cut short when John died just five days after they exchanged vows..

Jim kept fighting for recognition of their union. By the time the battle reached the supreme court they’d teamed up with many other couples fighting their own experiences of injustice.

Jim Obergefell became the lead plaintiff in the case, his name at the top of the court documents. Now a year on from the ground breaking decision he’s written a book about that journey.

Teaming up with Pulitzer prize winning journalist Debbie Cenziper, ‘Love Wins’ is not only the story of Jim and John’s loving relationship and that epic legal journey that followed after John’s death. The book also captures the perspectives of other key players on both sides of the fight for marriage equality in the USA.

Jim Obergefell spoke to OUTinPerth about his book, and the fight for marriage equality in the USA.

As we reach a year since the Supreme Court’s historic decision how do you reflect on the last 12 months?

It’s been quite the ride, my life has turned into something I could never have expected, something I never could have dreamed of – honestly.  As we come up on the year, in some ways it seems like it was only a few weeks ago, in other ways it feels like it was a decade ago. It’s a really weird dichotomy and feeling about the anniversary.

As you headed into the Supreme Court to hear the judges decision, what were your feelings at the time?

On that day, being the 26th of June, that morning we were all more optimistic about the ruling. It was Friday June 26th, and June 26th has been an important date for the community in the US. We were all more positive that morning.

Then when we were standing outside of the court house in the public line where a police officer was handing out the tickets for the court room. Instead of being the colour they had been every other time – bright orange – the ticket that morning was lavender. So that was just this additional hint, this additional possibility that yeah, we might be getting really good news.

Once I got to the courtroom, I was feeling pretty optimistic.

As you’ve traveled along this journey, how do you persevere and keep on fighting to get where you need to go?

Honestly that was fairly easy, because for me, from the start when John and I decided to file suit, we decided to do this because it was how we could live up to our promises and commitments to each other.

Then after John died I had to keep going because I needed to know that he really could rest in peace. I needed to know that his final record as a person, his death certificate, would always be accurate.

I also had a group of thirty something other plaintiffs involved who were all just as courageous, and just as brave, and just as – anything you want to say. They were fighting for the right things as well and that was a great amount of support and comfort. We became like a family – that really made it easier.

What was the biggest challenge, what was the hardest part?

I would say the hardest part, the hardest moment, was when the sixth circuit court of appeals ruled against us.  That’s when they had consolidated six cases from Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Michigan, and that court in a 2-1 ruling, ruled against us in November of 2014. That really was the low point.

It was a painful decision, I think it was an offensive decision, the way that it was written. That was the low point, but it also the point where we could look at that ruling, that loss and the potential silver lining that it would get us to the Supreme Court. It was the low point, but it came with that silver lining.

Since the decision was handed down a year ago, it’s rippled across the world and had not only an effect in the USA but to other countries as well. It’s sparked discussion on the other side of the world, in places like here in Australia. Do you see much of that ripple effect?

Absolutely, in fact last year after the decision I did quite a few interviews with international journalists, particularly in Asia. That was enough to let me know that this is something other people in other countries are looking at and thinking about, and there interested in.

It was pretty clear that it did have that ripple effect, and it continues to have that ripple effect.

That’s very interesting that you mention a lot of interest from Asia, because here in Australia some of our politicians have told us that we can’t get out of step with Asian countries because they are our trading partners and closest neighbours. 

I know that there are plenty of activists and marriage equality advocates throughout Asia who are not going to give up, they’re not going to let that fight die.

The fact that other countries in a region aren’t necessarily ready, or aren’t at the same point, that’s no excuse for not to move forward with equality, for not treating citizens equally. That just doesn’t make sense to me.

I don’t live in Asia-Pac, and I’m not the strongest person in international relations to know what that really could do.

There’s one line in your new book ‘Love Wins’ that leaped off the page when I was reading it. It was a statement that really hit home, it’s on page 142 and its something said by Bridget Coontz, the government lawyer at the very first stage of your legal process.

She says “We’re not going to crazy town.” noting that she’s going to argue the case from a legal perspective, and not delve into morality or whether gays and lesbians are really good people.

It stood out because it seems here in Australia, we are going to be going to crazy town.

Well you know, we’ve certainly been there in this country, and we still are. The LGBT community unfortunately has always been a target for lies, for ridiculous statements, for being treated less than human.

We’ve certainly been to crazy town, and even with this ruling it’s not like the US has checked out of crazy town. We’re still there in some ways, unfortunately.

What’s it like putting this all together in a book, what’s that process like?

For me the best possible thing was, when this happened Debbie called me out of the blue in April 2104. We have a family connection, John and I were at Debbie’s first wedding, so I’ve known Debbie for over 25 years.

When she called she said, “You know I have a literary agent who wants me to write a book, I wasn’t going to do it unless it’s something I’m passionate about. This is it. Do you want to write a book?”

It gave me an immediate sense of comfort and security because I knew her, that was great. The fact that she’s an investigative journalist meant that she had this great way of pulling memories out of my head, things that I thought I’d lost completely.

It was also part of my therapy for my grieving process, that was really helpful, but it was an incredibly short time frame. Each week we were writing one chapter while doing research for the next chapter.

The book includes not only your story and perspective, but also the point of view of lots of other people. What was it like for you to find out more about their experiences?

That was one of the things Debbie proposed almost from the start. I’m glad that we did that because I’ve always said this case is not just about me, about me and John – even though it has my name on it.

There was more than thirty other plaintiffs and I learned more about them, but really for me, it was learning more about our attorney Al Gerhardstein, and learning more about the judges, it was incredibly interesting to get those stories and make this a much bigger picture.

The other thing we decided we really needed to do was to make the city of Cincinnati itself a character in the book, and show how a city has changed over the past 20 years.  I look at Cincinnati today in comparison to when I first moved there in 1984, and when John and I became as couple in 1992, and there is very little I recognise from 20 years ago. It’s been an amazing transformation.

What’s was it like when you got the call from President Obama when you were standing outside the Supreme Court. It must have been a surreal experience.

I’d just been speaking to the press and I’d just completed an interview and someone hands me a cell-phone with it on speakerphone. Here I am trying to listen, hear and speak in the middle of thousands and thousands of people.

It was amazing because here’s the president calling to say “Jim – thank you. Because of you and your husband our country’s a better place today.” That’s a really amazing thing to be told by the president.

Even though, after I hung up, I couldn’t remember a single thing he’d said, or a single thing I’d said.

The title of your book is ‘Love Wins’, they’ve just announced the theme for our Pride festival in Perth this year is going to be ‘#love wins’, what do those words mean to you?

For me it just reinforces that fact that it is all about love, that’s what we fought for, that was the whole goal of what we did, and why we did it. It was because we loved each other, and we wanted to live up to our promises and our commitments.

It is all about love, and love can do amazing things.

Love Wins

Graeme Watson, image: Glen Hartong – Cincinnati Enquirer


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