Editor’s Letter, June 2020: What Makes a Hero?

How we show up for each other matters. The pandemic has revealed how our friends and neighbors keep showing up. Jim Obergefell knows what that’s like, too.

Illustration by Lars Leetaru

There’s been a rush to celebrate “heroes” during this pandemic period, and to honor their roles in trying to keep us all healthy, safe, and sane. Our admiration for those on the response’s front line—doctors, nurses, police, teachers—remains strong, but we’ve also found new targets of affection. Grocery store clerks, bus drivers, mail carriers, and restaurant kitchen staff were deemed “essential workers” by the powers that be and called “heroes” by the rest of us.

I doubt that many of them really felt like heroes showing up each day to work. Real heroes never admit to being heroes. They just do what needs to be done, crisis or not, while usually downplaying or ignoring the consequences.

A lot of people consider Jim Obergefell a hero. His name graced a lawsuit that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the decision in his favor five years ago in essence legalized same-sex marriage across the U.S. Those of us who aren’t attorneys or history majors can name just a few key Supreme Court rulings that really mattered: Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Roe v. Wade. Future generations will likely include Obergefell v. Hodges in the same conversation.

And yet Homer Plessy, Oliver Brown, Norma McCorvey (“Jane Roe” in court documents), and Jim Obergefell were ordinary Americans seeking equal opportunities and equal treatment. Like our current cast of heroes, they were real people dealing with a problem they refused to avoid.

As we planned to celebrate Pride in this month’s issue, I reached out to Obergefell to participate in a roundtable discussion with local high school LGBTQ activists. I was interested to hear their reactions to his Supreme Court experience, and his thoughts on the challenges young people are trying to overcome today. Obergefell was open, curious, and humble in our conversation. The very premise of his lawsuit—seeking the legal right to be named spouse on his husband’s death certificate—was and remains bittersweet. He regrets only the necessity of the fight, not the effort or sacrifice to see it through. Much like our frontline heroes today.

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