Marriage ruling plaintiff from Ohio dedicated to activism

CINCINNATI (AP) — Three years ago Sunday, Jim Obergefell asked his longtime partner to marry him, beginning a whirlwind of events that led to his name being at the top of the U.S. Supreme Court case that resulted exactly two years later in legalization of same-sex marriage across America.

He and terminally ill John Arthur were married aboard a medically equipped plane on a tarmac in Maryland, where they flew because of Ohio’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Their situation, which raised questions about what would happen legally upon Arthur’s death back in Ohio, drew the attention of veteran Cincinnati civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein and put their case on the path to the nation’s highest court.

Obergefell is crisscrossing the country promoting a new book about the legal battle and other plaintiffs and people closely involved in it, written with journalist Debbie Cenziper and titled “Love Wins.”

Despite the book’s title, clashes over the ruling and LGBT rights continue. Some states are debating legislation critics say would legalize discrimination, and 11 states are suing President Barack Obama’s administration over its directive to let transgender students use public school bathrooms and locker rooms to match their gender identities.

A pending Ohio bill, dubbed the Pastor Protection Act, would let churches and pastors refuse to perform same-sex marriages. Bill supporter Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana, wrote after last year’s Supreme Court ruling: “Subverting the laws of nature is not wise.”

Over coffee awhile back in Cincinnati for book-signings, Obergefell, 49, a Sandusky, Ohio, native who is moving to Washington D.C., talked about the state of the rights movement and his own plans.

Some excerpts:


Q: What are your thoughts as you think about the ruling anniversary?

A: One is just loving the joy I see across the country when people stop me to show me photos, tell me stories, show me the wedding rings, talk about how after having been together for 30 years, they finally can call each other “husband and husband” or “wife and wife.” They hug me, they cry, they shake my hand. I feel like I’m part of thousands of marriages, and that’s such a wonderful gift.

So I’ve seen joy, and I also see the backlash. We all expected backlash … but what has happened is just far more vicious than any of us dreamt of.

It’s just becoming increasingly clear how much education still has to happen.


Q: What’s your reaction to the shootings this month that killed 49 people in Orlando (in a gay nightclub)?

A: It makes us feel afraid and concerned, but it also makes us proud to be part of a community that is resilient. … We’ve been through a lot. We’ve been through the HIV-AIDS crisis. We’ve been through centuries of hatred directed our way.

We have moved forward, and we’ve learned that the way we do this is by being a community that fights for each other, by having allies on our side and helping people understand us.

But we’re angry that so many politicians won’t event utter LGBTQ when they talk about this atrocity. This is a hate crime, pure and simple, and for people to ignore that … it’s harmful and hurtful.


Q: You moved a book-signing from the local county library after its board refused to pay for a transgender employee’s transition surgery. What is the state of the transgender movement a year after marriage ruling?

A: In the past year, my understanding, my attitudes, my knowledge, my experience, has changed dramatically, and for the better.

I look at it this way: John’s and my fight and the fight of every single person in that lawsuit is about equality, about everyone being allowed to participate in society equally. And that’s what has to happen.

And there was no question in my mind that I could not hold an event and talk about love and equality and fairness in a building when I know my transgender siblings are not being treated that way.


Q: You and John (who died in October 2013) have said you were “accidental activists,” but now you are active in speaking out in appearances, interviews, on social media. Do you plan to continue that?

A: It wasn’t until we found ourselves in a set of circumstances we never planned, we never imagined; once that happened, I guess the inner activist in me was awakened. At this point, I can’t imagine not being involved in some effort, some fight.

It’s about where we are in a society, it’s about fighting for something bigger than I am, so absolutely, that’s my life going forward.


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