“It took me 49 years to figure out what I’m willing to fight for—what I would put my life on the line for. I finally found it…”
By Jayna Barker
NKU Marketing + Communications
On June 26, 2015, Jim Obergefell sat nervously in a courtroom in the United States Supreme Court Building. He listened to Justice Anthony Kennedy tell him his marriage was real—it legally existed and deserved the same respect given to heterosexual couples. He breathed a sigh of relief, feeling more like an American than he ever had in his life.
The only thing missing was his husband.
Obergefell met John Arthur in 1992, and they quickly fell in love. They spent two decades building a life together in Cincinnati before officially becoming husband and husband in June 2013. The couple had always talked about marriage but never considered it seriously until after Arthur’s health declined due to his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) diagnosis.
They couldn’t marry in their home state of Ohio, so they traveled via medical jet to Maryland. The plane was only on the tarmac of the Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport for seven-and-a-half minutes—long enough for both of them to say, “With this ring, I thee wed.”
Just days after they returned home, they were notified Ohio wouldn’t recognize their union. Arthur’s death certificate would list his marital status as single, and Obergefell’s name would not be listed as the widower.
“When we started this, it was about the two of us,” Obergefell says. “Thinking about the future meant thinking about John’s death. We wanted to fight for our marriage and live up to our commitments to love, honor, and protect each other.”
They decided to challenge the state’s ban on gay marriage and won a temporary injunction, which allowed Obergefell’s name to be listed as Arthur’s spouse.
Arthur died three months later.
Obergefell lost the love of his life, but the legal battle continued. That December, a judge made the injunction permanent. However, the state of Ohio appealed it in an attempt to remove Obergefell’s name from the death certificate, and the case went to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In November 2014, the appeals court ruled against Obergefell and 30 other same-sex couple plaintiffs from Greater Cincinnati, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee. That ruling set the stage for an appeal to be presented to the Supreme Court. His case was combined with six others, which became known as Obergefell v. Hodges.
At that moment, the fight for marriage equality became bigger than just Obergefell and Arthur—it was a fight for all same-sex couples in the country.
“Growing up, we are told to believe that one person or group of people can’t change the world,” Obergefell says. “I don’t believe that’s true. We stood up, we fought for what we believed in, and we won. We helped change our nation for the better.”
On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court decided in the plaintiffs’ favor, ruling that gay marriage is a constitutional right. The decision came 19 months after Arthur’s death and decades of community activism.
Being in the courtroom at the time of the ruling was emotional for Obergefell, who wished his late husband could have been by his side to experience it with him. He still lives in the condominium they shared in Over-the-Rhine, which is covered in the pieces of art they collected during their two-decade romance.
“I very much miss John,” Obergefell says, “but being able to talk about him and fight for him—and our marriage—turned out to be a really great thing for me in the grieving process. Fighting for something bigger than we both were gave purpose to my life.”
It’s been 10 months since the ruling, but Obergefell is still committed to continuing the fight for American civil rights and equality. He’s been on the cover of Human Rights Campaign. He’s traveled all over the country for speaking engagements. He was even recently invited to spend the last State of the Union speech with President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama in January.
However, Obergefell never intended to become the face of a national movement for marriage equality. He spent much of his life dedicated to being a realtor and IT consultant. It wasn’t until he married the man he loved that the “accidental activist” found his place in the world.
“It took me 49 years to figure out what I’m willing to fight for—what I would put my life on the line for,” Obergefell says. “I finally found it.”
Obergefell will be visiting campus April 5 as a keynote speaker during NKU’s third-annual LGBTQ Norse Pride Week. Listen to him speak about taking his case to the U.S. Supreme Court April 5, at 4 p.m. in the Otto M. Budig Theater, University Center 270.
LGBTQ Norse Pride Week Events
Friday, April 1
LGBTQ Pride Week Kick-Off Event
3 p.m., Campus Recreation Center
Monday, April 4
My Coma Dreams Film Screening
1:30 p.m., Griffin Hall Digitorium
Tuesday, April 5
LGBTQ Norse Pride March
12:15 p.m., Student Union Plaza
LGBTQ Keynote Jim Obergefell
4 p.m., Otto Budig Theater, University Center 270
Wednesday, April 6
10 a.m., University Center 135 and Student Union
Staged Reading of The Laramie Project
7 p.m., Student Union 102
Thursday, April 7
LGBTQ Open Mic Night
7 p.m., Student Union 102
Friday, April 8
Economic Inequalities Summit: Building Just Communities
9 a.m., Student Union Ballroom
Common Ground Presents Queer Factor: The 2016 Spring Drag Show
7-9 p.m., Student Union Ballroom