Jim Obergefell talks activism at Webster’s first Speaker Series of the year

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Jim Obergefell spoke to webster students on Sept. 20 at the Loretto Hilton Center. The 2015 Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges effectively legalized same-sex marriage across the nation.

In 2013, Jim Obergefell stepped into an activist’s shoes. He sued the state of Ohio for refusing to recognize the marriage between him and his husband, John Arthur.

The case, which went on to the Supreme Court and became Obergefell v. Hodges, effectively legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015. After fighting for two years, Obergefell emerged as an activist for the LGBTQ+ community.

This Monday, Webster hosted Obergefell at the Loretto Hilton Center for the first Headliner Speaker Series event of the academic year. This event was also the first time in two years Webster was able to host an in-person speaker for the series.

Jim Obergefell stands outside Webster University’s Loretto-Hilton Center on Sept. 20, 2021 before his speech. Photo by Kate McCracken.

Obergefell spoke on his experience in fighting for equality and encouraged others to also become activists.

“I became an activist at the age of 46, and I have to be honest, it isn’t something I ever thought I would do,” Obergefell said at the event. “For me growing up, and when John and I became a couple, activism to us meant writing a check to organizations or causes we believed in. But we ended up in this place where we had a decision to make.”

Arthur was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also referred to as ALS, in 2011. He eventually became bedridden, and Obergefell became his full-time caretaker. They had been together for 20 years. After his diagnosis, Arthur had five years, at most, left to live.

One day in June 2013, Arthur called Obergefell into his room to watch the news. It was the Supreme Court decision in United States v. Windsor, which ruled that federal refusal to recognize same-sex marriage violated the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

“I’m standing by John’s bed, holding his hand, when the Supreme Court released their decision in [Windsor]. I hadn’t thought about this. I hadn’t planned it, but once that sunk in, once I realized the federal government has to realize same-sex marriages, I leaned over, hugged and kissed John and spontaneously proposed,” Obergefell said.

However, individual states could still decide their own laws for same-sex marriage, and Ohio banned them. Obergefell and Arthur had to fly out of state, to Maryland, to get married.

Within days of the newlywed’s return to their home state, they were confronted with a grim realization; Obergefell would not be on his husband’s death certificate.

Because Ohio did not recognize same-sex marriages, even those officiated out of state, Arthur’s death certificate would have said he died unmarried, and thus Obergefell would not be listed as his surviving spouse.

“To hear these words, ‘Your marriage will not exist on his death certificate,’ broke our hearts. But I think, more importantly, it made us angry,” Obergefell said.

The thought that their union of love in Arthur’s last years of life would not be acknowledged sprang the couple into action.

“I was never an activist, and John was even less of an activist, but we found ourselves in this situation,” Obergefell said. “John and I, we had a really easy yes or no decision to make; were we willing to fight for each other, and our marriage? Were we willing to say our marriage, our relationship, deserved dignity and respect? It was one of the easiest decisions I have ever made.”

Eleven days after Obergefell and Arthur got married, they sued the state of Ohio and the city of Cincinnati. Their case was upheld by Judge Timothy Black, who said the state same-sex marriage ban was unconstitutional.

“I loved John, and I wanted our marriage to exist in the eyes of the law. That was what caused me to become an activist,” Obergefell said.

That October, Arthur passed away knowing his marriage was recognized in his home state and by his country’s federal government.

But the fight for Obergefell was not over. Ohio further challenged Judge Black’s ruling, which led the case to the Supreme Court.

Although his husband had passed on, Obergefell never gave up the fight for his marriage and others to have marriage equality.

“It was about a year after John died, and we had just lost in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Honestly, when I think back to my experience in this case, that was the time where I could’ve said, ‘I’m tired. I wanna go back to my quiet life,’” Obergefell said. “But there was no way I would, because if I didn’t keep fighting … I wasn’t living up to my promises to love, honor and protect John.”

After the case was appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court by the states who opposed same-sex marriage, it went on to the Supreme Court. At that point, it was a culmination of 30 plaintiffs from Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Michigan who also sued their states for discrimination against same-sex couples.

The court ruled Obergefell v. Hodges 5-4 on June 26, 2015, two years to the day after Obergefell and Arthur witnessed the decision of Windsor.

“For the first time in my life as an out gay man, I felt like an equal American,” Obergefell said.

“Since that decision, I am an LGBTQ+ activist. But I’ve grown. I’ve changed. I’ve learned. I’m not just an LGBTQ+ rights activist; I consider myself a civil rights activist.”

Obergefell says he is consistently fighting for the transgender community, BIPOC community, women and other minority groups.

“I’m not just fighting for people like me. I have to fight for everyone because I don’t have the right to ask for my rights if I’m not demanding it for everyone else,” Obergefell said.

Over the last six years, Obergefell said his most impactful experiences from this court case are the people and families who approach him and thank him. They shake his hand, show pictures of their wedding or significant other and credit his perseverance to why they were able to marry their loved one.

Obergefell says it has been rewarding to know he has had a positive impact on so many people’s lives.

“You never know when you’re going to have that opportunity to fight for something you believe in. When that happens, take that opportunity,” Obergefell said. “I hope for all of you out there who want the world to be a better place, if you ever find yourself in a situation where you can say, ‘This is what I believe in, and this is what I’m willing to fight for,’ I hope you will do it.”

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Lifestyle Editor | + posts

Kate McCracken (she/her) is the lifestyle editor for the Journal. She is a double major in Philosophy and History, minoring in Professional Writing. She has always loved to write and create stories, and she wrote her first book at age 10. Aside from writing, Kate also enjoys photography, environmental/animal activism, paranormal investigation and oneirology, the study of dreams.