The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on marriage equality in coming weeks. With its decision in Obergefell vs. Hodges, the court could establish gay marriage as a right in all 50 states.
The lead plaintiff in the case, Jim Obergefell, met with the Observer editorial board on Monday. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q. If you’re name is going to make history, we need to make sure we’re pronouncing it correctly.
A. It’s OH-berg-uh-fell.
Q. Start at the beginning. Tell us your story and how you ended up the named plaintiff in what could be a historic case.
A. In June 2013, when the Windsor ruling was announced, at that point my partner of 20 years (John Arthur) had been diagnosed with ALS two years prior and was in hospice care. We were watching the news that day and when the ruling came out I simply leaned over, hugged him and kissed him and said, “Let’s get married.” Because it was the first time in our 20 years together that we suddenly had the opportunity to marry and actually have it carry some legal weight.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t just take him six blocks to our county courthouse (because gay marriage was not legal in Ohio). So we chartered a medical jet to go to Maryland. We flew to BWI, landed, parked on the tarmac and got married. John’s aunt, Paulette, years before got ordained purely because she wanted to be ready to marry us if we ever had that opportunity.
When we did that, we just got married for us.
Q. Meaning, you had no bigger legal fight in mind, no activism in mind?
A. None whatsoever. It was purely for us. We wanted our government to say, “Yeah, you exist, you matter.”
[Friends of the men ran into a civil rights attorney days later and he arranged a meeting.]
He pulled out a blank death certificate and said, “Now guys, do you realize when John dies the state of Ohio will fill this out incorrectly? Where it says marital status they will say he was unmarried, and where it says surviving spouse, they’ll leave it blank.”
Just hearing those words and realizing this last record of John’s life would be wrong? It hurt. It was painful and it made us mad. We decided we weren’t willing to put up with it and we weren’t willing to be second-class citizens anymore. So we decided to file suit.
Q. You have a North Carolina connection, right?
A. What John asked was that his ashes be dumped into the gulfstream along with his mom’s; she died eight years ago and I still have her ashes. And he wanted them to be dumped together so they cold travel the world together. And since the gulfstream comes closest to the coast of North Carolina and we have a house at the Outer Banks (at Corolla), that is the plan.
Q. Speaking of North Carolina, tell me what you think of the state’s magistrates bill.
The United States is a country governed by laws and government officials are bound by those laws. So while I can understand someone of faith might disagree with same-sex marriage, as a government official they should be required to treat all citizens equally.
It’s frustrating there are so many of these bills coming up that are targeting the LGBT community. It’s frightening, it’s painful and to me and a lot of people in the LGBT community, it is just to make sure we are kept as second-class citizens.
Q. Tell me why you’re meeting us and doing press conferences and going to different cities? You don’t think you can influence the justices by rousing public opinion, do you?
A. No, but I can play a part in continuing to change hearts and minds and taking the fight for marriage equality and then the bigger fight for equality ... it’s about love and honoring commitments. And protecting the people that you love and those commitments that you make. If I can be the smallest part of continuing that fight and changing minds, then I’m honored to do that.
On a very personal level, it also helps me live up to my commitments to my husband. We made those commitments to love, honor and protect each other. And this entire fight has been about me fulfilling my promises to him. To fight for him, and to protect him.
Q. Do your efforts for equality go beyond marriage?
A. For all of us, the thought we could have marriage equality across the country in less than a month is amazing. But it’s only one step toward the LGBT community truly being full members of society and being treated equally.
There’s still the risk in way too many places where we have marriage equality that they get married at noon, go back to work and put up a picture of their wedding day and because of that they could lose their job. There are too many other ways we are still considered second-class citizens and too many other ways we could be harmed and too many other rights we don’t enjoy. (Advocates are pushing for a federal non-discrimination law analogous to the 1964 civil rights bill.)
Q. You said John’s aunt thought of you all as a “real” marriage. Tell me what she meant by that.
A. In John and me she saw two people who loved each other unconditionally and supported each other without question, always stood up for each other and respected each other. She looked at us and thought, “These two guys love each other and they’re committed to each other and they would do anything under the sun for each other.” And in her opinion, that’s what marriage is; it’s making those commitments and living up to them. And that’s what she saw in us.
When John was diagnosed, I heard from a lot of people who said, “I think it’s so great you’re staying with him and caring for him.” And my response was always, “Well, what else would I do? This is the person I love.”