Early on the afternoon of April 28, under a postcard-blue sky, Jim Obergefell emerged from the U.S. Supreme Court and descended its marble steps. On the sidewalk below him stood thousands of demonstrators waving signs, cheering, chanting, and praying; a bank of microphones and journalists from all over the world waited. A few dozen other people emerged just behind him, all waving as they were steered to the microphones. Five people lined up to address the media; Obergefell, wearing a new suit and choking back tears, was one of them.
“I walked up to these steps and into that courtroom today as an American citizen, and I read those words engraved over the front door: Equal justice under law. I’m fighting for our rights to be recognized and respected as full United States citizens,” he said. “I deserve to have my husband’s death certificate recognize me as his surviving spouse. We deserve the same respect as any other couple.”
He was then whisked off for interviews with CNN and MSNBC and the BBC and WLWT and The Cincinnati Enquirer and the The Washington Post. As strangers approached to hug him, take his photo, and ask for his autograph, he answered the same questions again and again: Yes, it was surreal to be in the U.S. Supreme Court. No, he couldn’t predict how the justices would rule, but yes, he was confident in the promise of equality enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
Two years ago this month, Obergefell and John Arthur had sat in their Over-the-Rhine condo and watched on television as a similar scene unfolded on those same steps. The Supreme Court justices had just ruled on a landmark case: United States v. Windsor. By a 5–4 vote, they had struck down Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act—an action which allowed the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages.
The case that brought Obergefell to Washington in April is an extension of the Windsor case that will decide whether such marriages must be performed and recognized across the country. The reason this affable 48-year-old real estate agent was at the center of the circus on the Supreme Court steps is that the sprawling case now under consideration bears his name: Obergefell v. Hodges. As Obergefell has progressed from bystander to protagonist in the unfolding story of marriage equality, he has assumed a series of identities that would have once seemed inconceivable to him: Husband. Plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against the State of Ohio. Widower. Political activist. Public figure.
Soon, he may add one more identity to that list. If the court rules in favor of same-sex couples, Obergefell v. Hodges would become legal shorthand on par with Brown vs. the Board of Education and Roe v. Wade. Students may someday struggle to pronounce Obergefell’s name (OH-bur-guh-fel) as they study the watershed moments in the battle for marriage equality.
It has been a painful yet exhilarating journey for Obergefell—also exhausting, and occasionally a lot of fun. He’s been forced to evolve from private person to public activist, channeling his grief into a cause that could alter the course of history. When he heads back to the steps of the Supreme Court later this month, he’s hoping to celebrate a happy ending to the battle that’s consumed the last two years of his life.
“He’s going to be famous like all those other famous names,” civil rights leader Julian Bond, who stood in line next to Obergefell to enter the Supreme Court for the hearing, told The Washington Post. “People are going to be talking about him for years. That must be a peculiar place to be in, but it looks like he’s handling it well.”
Obergefell and John Arthur fell in love on New Year’s Eve, 1992—at third sight, they liked to say, because their initial two meetings were forgettable—and were inseparable for two decades afterward.
John Arthur was the one with the big plans and a sly wit; when I interviewed him not long before his death from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), he told me one of his great accomplishments was seeing the ABBA musical Mamma Mia! 14 times in three different countries. The logistics of Arthur’s big plans often fell to Obergefell, the more serious and responsible of the two. So many gay men and lesbians have stories of alienation, tortured adolescences, and struggles for self-acceptance, but until Arthur’s diagnosis, the couple led a charmed existence free from overt discrimination. They liked to say they were always out but were never their “own personal Pride parade,” and never considered themselves any different than the straight couples who made up most of their social circle.
They frequently travelled internationally and loved to throw big parties. When Arthur’s brother Curtis began working with a foreign exchange program, they became temporary parents to students whom they later visited in their home countries and forever referred to as family. They worked a series of corporate training and consulting jobs, paid taxes, collected art, and enjoyed cocktails and bad television together. In the two decades of their relationship, the idea of two men marrying each other went from unimaginable to legal in a handful of states. Friends used to ask if they’d ever fly to Hawaii or Massachusetts to marry. But because the federal Defense of Marriage Act prevented the U.S. government from recognizing such marriages, they dismissed the idea, preferring to wait until their marriage would be legally the same as their friends’. Arthur’s aunt, Paulette Roberts, affectionately known as Tootie, became ordained online just in case, hoping to preside at their wedding someday.
But fate had other plans. In 2011, Arthur was diagnosed with ALS, a relentless neurodegenerative disease that kills most patients within two to five years. The life they’d made was upended in a moment, and they quickly reorganized everything to manage Arthur’s physical decline, moving from a two-story condo in Over-the-Rhine to one where they could live on a single level. They transferred their assets to Obergefell’s name and took a few last trips together.
By June 2013, Arthur was under hospice care and bedridden when the Supreme Court initially struck down parts of DOMA. Watching news coverage of the announcement, Obergefell turned to Arthur and proposed to him; Arthur said yes.
Since Ohio limits marriages to a man and a woman, the two began looking for a state where they could legally tie the knot. They settled on Maryland because Obergefell could get their marriage license by himself. But they still needed to travel there to wed, and they were stunned to find out it would cost $13,000 to rent a medical transport plane. Obergefell took to social media to see if any friends had connections or ideas, and donations began pouring in.
On July 11 they flew with Aunt Tootie, a nurse, and two pilots to the airport in Baltimore and stayed on the tarmac just long enough to exchange vows.
They returned to Lunken Airport, where friends and family greeted them with placards and rice. I wrote about their wedding for The Cincinnati Enquirer three days later, and Enquirer photographer Glenn Hartong met them in Baltimore and videotaped the brief ceremony. At one point in the video, Arthur paraphrases a quote from Lou Gehrig, the New York Yankees star who died of ALS: “Today I feel like the luckiest man in the world.” Obergefell assures me that the quote was quite by accident; Arthur wasn’t the kind to go around quoting baseball players from the 1930s.
Four days after the wedding, Obergefell sat at his kitchen table with civil-rights attorney Al Gerhardstein. Gerhardstein pulled out a blank Ohio death certificate and pointed to two spaces on the form: one for marital status, the other for surviving spouse. When John dies, Gerhardstein explained, he will be listed as single on this form, and the space for his spouse will remain empty. The last record of his life would bear no acknowledgement of Jim or their life together.
Obergefell burst into tears. “That was it,” he says, remembering the moment. “That was what made me realize I wasn’t willing to put up with it anymore and I didn’t think anyone else should either.”
The days following their wedding had been thrilling, as they reveled in their ability to call each other husband. The video of their wedding had been picked up by sites across the country and around the world, and cards and well wishes poured in. But Gerhardstein’s visit changed the trajectory of their married life.
After the Windsor decision had enabled federal recognition of same-sex marriages, Gerhardstein and many other attorneys had been looking for a new round of cases to challenge state bans on same-sex marriage. Gerhardstein had talked with mutual friends of the couple and had read the Enquirer piece about Obergefell and Arthur; he knew right away what they were facing. Acquaintances offered to introduce him to the couple. “I knew [bringing the death certificate] would be emotional,” Gerhardstein says, “but I also knew they had a problem. Who wants to have the last record of their life be wrong?”
That Friday, eight days after their wedding, they filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, the first lawsuit related to marriage equality following the Windsor decision. Gerhardstein’s argument was straightforward: the state should recognize their marriage, legally performed in another state, just as they recognize other marriages, such as those between first cousins, that Ohio doesn’t issue licenses for. Arthur’s terminal illness enabled the legal team to argue for emergency relief, and a hearing was scheduled for the next business day. Arthur never wavered in his support for the lawsuit, even though it meant Obergefell had to leave their house frequently to attend hearings, give interviews, and meet with their legal team in what would be the last few months of Arthur’s life.
“Jim blossomed on the stand,” Gerhardstein says. “He was a terrific witness. He was clear about how important the marriage was to them and how he was there for the both of them. They both felt they had a calling to do this for all the couples like them. It has been a mission and continues to be. Every time he talks, it’s fresh. John is with him and he’s raw and clear.”
The day after the hearing, Judge Timothy Black granted their request for a temporary restraining order requiring the state to recognize Obergefell and Arthur’s marriage on Arthur’s death certificate. The couple celebrated that night with a few friends and a bottle of champagne; Arthur drank his out of a lidded cup with a straw.
John Arthur died October 22, 2013. He’d been an allergic asthmatic his whole life; he was fond of saying, “If I can breathe, it’s all good.” But the ALS had systematically attacked his muscles, rendering them useless, and at last it paralyzed the muscles used for breathing. He died of respiratory arrest at the age of 48.
The obligations of their legal case had died down following the temporary order in late July, which allowed Obergefell to care for Arthur over the last few months they had together. When Arthur’s death certificate arrived, Obergefell was relieved to see his own name listed as Arthur’s surviving spouse, though the state denied him a $255 Social Security death benefit.
That November, 300 or so people gathered at a downtown art gallery to celebrate Arthur’s life. They listened to his favorite band, Jake Speed and the Freddies, and ate his favorite food, Holtman’s donuts and fried chicken from Richie’s in the West End. Arthur was there, too: as the party got underway a friend ran to their condo, fetched the box with his ashes in it, slapped a hat and name tag on it, and parked it next to the guest book.
The following month Judge Black issued his final ruling on the case. “[O]nce you get married lawfully in one state,” he wrote, “another state cannot summarily take your marriage away, because the right to remain married is properly recognized as a fundamental liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution.” In January 2014, the state of Ohio appealed the decision, sending the matter to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and setting in motion the fight that would go all the way to the Supreme Court.
It’s not as though the couple weren’t interested in politics at all. While a student at the University of Cincinnati, John Arthur had been transformed by a class in urban lobbying taught by the late Danny Ransohoff. He vowed to live within the Cincinnati city limits, and once out of college he did. He always swore if he won the lottery, he’d buy up as many blighted city blocks as he could and rehabilitate them as his legacy. But he’d viewed day-to-day politics as an often absurd practice, and neither he nor Obergefell had ever spent much time involved in fund-raisers or campaigns.
That changed when David Pepper—the current chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, who was running for Ohio attorney general at the time—reached out to Obergefell and began to invite him to political dinners and campaign events. His involvement was limited at first but grew in the months following Arthur’s death.
“His story is so inspiring to me. A lot of people are minding their own business and something is done to them and they stand up and say, ‘That’s enough,’ and they find out they’re tougher than they think,” says Pepper. He compares Obergefell and Arthur to Oliver Brown, the Kansas welder who sued the Topeka Board of Education in 1951 to allow his daughter to attend a whites-only school near their house. “[Obergefell]’s absolutely as nice a guy as you’ll ever meet,” says Pepper, “but he’s also tough, and once he decided to stand up he didn’t back down.”
Pepper invited Obergefell to March’s state Democratic dinner; he remembers everyone wanted to talk to Senator Sherrod Brown and Obergefell, and Brown himself wanted to meet Obergefell. At the dinner Pepper announced the creation of the Obergefell-Arthur Progressive Hero Award, an annual honor that he bestowed on its namesakes first.
As the case has advanced, Obergefell has become more comfortable mingling with politicians. In February, during a trip to Washington, D.C., he met Vice President Joe Biden and appeared on a three-person panel with a Human Rights Campaign attorney and an Alabama woman fighting to have her marriage recognized. “I just told our story; I walked offstage and thought, That was fun,” he says. “It was one of those things that, by opening myself up to it, I’m learning about myself.” In early April, Senator Brown and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker told the couple’s story from the floor of the U.S. Senate, as Obergefell stood in the gallery, amazed again at the attention their situation had garnered.
He’s noticed, too, that his identity as a gay man has evolved alongside the political and legal fight. Obergefell and Arthur had lived their lives considering their sexual orientation to be a small part of their identity. But the fight over their marriage changed his perspective. “We didn’t see marriage as a political gesture. It was simply what we wanted to do personally,” Obergefell says. “We would joke we were bad gays because we didn’t know a lot of gay people in Cincinnati, and the vast majority of people we see and do things with are straight couples. But now I think maybe I do identify, or maybe I’m more willing or open; I can’t remember any time in my life when I would have put in writing, ‘As a gay man…’ But now I do.”
After Obergefell and Arthur’s case was filed, other cases arose, including lesbian couples who wanted to have both parents listed on their children’s birth certificates; a New York couple who wanted to be listed on the adoption papers of their Ohio-born son; and another widower from the suburb of Wyoming who was petitioning to be listed on his husband’s death certificate.
Marriage equality was upheld in post-Windsor cases by appeals courts in other parts of the country, but the Sixth Circuit Court in Cincinnati, hearing cases from Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, and Tennessee, ruled against the petitioning couples in a 2–1 vote. The ruling was simultaneously a blow to the plaintiffs and a widely anticipated chance to send the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court. On January 16, a year to the day after the Ohio Attorney General appealed Judge Black’s ruling, the justices agreed to hear what had become, at that point, a consolidation of cases from all four states. Because Obergefell and Arthur’s case was the first filed after Windsor, Obergefell’s name was assigned to it.
Once it was clear who would be the named plaintiff, the people at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) began inviting Obergefell to speak at events. And as on the witness stand, he turned out to have a knack for advocacy. In March, he delivered friend-of-the-court briefs to the Supreme Court and spoke briefly on the steps outside, then attended HRC’s annual Equality Convention. He accepted invitations to speak at galas in Houston, Atlanta, Dallas, and again in Washington in the fall. And the man who was never his own personal Pride parade will lead the Columbus Pride Parade later this month.
Afterward people want to meet him, hug him, tell him what happened to their husband or wife or mother or son, and he listens and nods and laughs with them. He’s appeared on the front page of The Washington Post and USA Today, and news sites from BuzzFeed to Huffington Post have profiled him.
“To see him—if you believe in God, you know God has a sense of humor because you couldn’t have a better named plaintiff,” says Fred Sainz, HRC’s vice president for communications and marketing. “His laid-back, Midwestern kind of reserve is what makes him so incredibly effective. He’s your neighbor, your uncle, the guy in the next cubicle.
“And what makes him so compelling is that he has nothing to gain. There is no happily ever after for him. It turns our messaging on its head and says there are also responsibilities of marriage in death.”
During one recent Washington trip Obergefell went out to dinner with someone he’d met through social media, and they talked a lot about the role he has found himself growing into. “People have said, ‘You’re so brave.’ But I just didn’t buy it,” he said. “I know what we’ve done is significant but it’s always just felt like me and John. [The friend] said, ‘You’re a sincere person. That’s what people see and that’s what they respond to.’
“The next day an internal switch had flipped, where if people asked me to do something I was normally reticent to do, now my default position would be, Oh yeah. I came back from that trip energized. I’ve accepted it in much more profound ways than before.”
The sudden attention can be disorienting. He finds himself in a nice hotel room in a new city, visiting an art museum or donning a tux, having a good time. And he’ll remember that this new life of his is predicated on his husband’s death. He’ll feel a pang of guilt, but something else as well. Because every time he stands in front of a room full of strangers and recounts their story, more people learn about John and their love and the life they had together.
Like anyone who’s lost a spouse, what Obergefell fears most is forgetting. But when he speaks of their wedding day, and the vows they made to each other, John is present. He’s alive again in Obergefell’s words, and in the minds of the people who hear him. Arthur was there, too, when attorney Douglas Hallward Driemeier told the nine Supreme Court justices about their marriage. As he did, Obergefell and Aunt Tootie clasped hands and wept.
“I’ve been able to talk about my husband every day,” Obergefell said after the hearing, as the adrenaline and emotion of the day began to take a toll. “It’s an unexpected gift of this whole process.”
And depending on the Supreme Court’s decision, John Arthur may also live on in the pages of history books. The grand legacy he talked of eluded him in life. But there’s another legacy within reach, and Obergefell is determined to grasp it for both of them.