'Accidental Activist'

Jim Obergefell visits with Bradley students. (Photo by Duane Zehr)

Mary Brolley
February 27, 2018

On a recent rainy February evening, a packed audience of Bradley students and community members gathered to hear a love story — and learn about the landmark legal case it set in motion.

Jim Obergefell of Cincinnati, Ohio, was the lead plaintiff in Obergefell v. Hodges, better known as the 2015 Supreme Court case that guaranteed marriage equality.

Calling himself an “accidental activist,” Obergefell described growing up in a blue collar Catholic family, coming out as gay in his 20s, and his long, committed relationship with partner John Arthur. Their life was thrown into crisis in 2011 when Arthur was diagnosed with amyotropic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

As Arthur was dying of the disease in the summer of 2013, the couple decided to marry. Because same-sex marriage wasn’t legal in Ohio, they chose to fly to Maryland for the ceremony. Arthur’s frail condition required a medical transport flight, and the couple exchanged vows on the tiny plane shortly after it landed.

A few days later, they realized that when Arthur died, Obergefell would not be listed on the death certificate as the surviving spouse. So, represented by Cincinnati civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein, they sued the state of Ohio to change the law.

Though Arthur died three months after the marriage, Obergefell remained committed to the cause. During the stress of preparing for successive court cases over the next two years, he kept his love for Arthur front and center.

“I told myself, ‘This is not a dry, arcane legal argument. This is about real people being harmed,’” he said. “I had to live up to my promise to love, honor and protect John.”

Obergefell recalled being ushered out the side door with Gerhardstein after the Supreme Court decision because the crowd outside had surged past police barricades and up the iconic steps. He and Gerhardstein linked arms and walked out into a sea of celebrants.

“The air was electric. The joy in the air was palpable,” he said.

Obergefell gave credit to previous generations of gay rights activists for making the victory on marriage equality possible. And he reminded the audience the struggle for LGBTQ rights is far from over.

“We have to take every avenue to fight for our rights. And we have to practice what we preach, for example in supporting the transgender community. We need to be champions for every dispossessed group out there.”

The speech was co-sponsored by campus organizations the Sociology Club and Common Ground, an LGBTQ support group.

Obergefell met with students before the lecture and took questions after. He also signed copies of his book, “Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality,” co-written with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Debbie Cenziper.