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Jim Obergefell: The Battle for Marriage Equality

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Jim Obergefell: The Battle for Marriage Equality

In 2013, Jim Obergefell and his boyfriend John, who was suffering from a terminal disease, were married on the tarmac in a medical jet at an airport in Maryland. When they returned home to Ohio, they learned that marriage would not be legally recognized. This led Jim to become the lead plaintiff in Obergefell v. Hodges, a 2015 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples.

In the wake of Dobbs. v. Jackson, which removed the constitutional right to abortion, Chief Justice Tomas has said that the court “should reconsider” Obergefell v. Hodges.

Now, Jim is running for the Ohio State House.

To learn more about Jim, visit his website, obergefellforohio.com.

You can also find Jim on both Instagram and Twitter at @JimObergefell

Photo Credit: Emma Parker Photography

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

My guest today is Jim Obergefell. He was the lead plaintiff in Obergefell versus Hodges, a 2015 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples. That decision and the marriages of millions of Americans are now under threat by a radically different Supreme Court. Jim for his part has continued his activism and is now running for the Ohio House of Representatives. Jim, such an honor to speak with you. Welcome to Burn the Boats.

Jim Obergefell:

Thanks for having me on, Ken. I appreciate the invitation.

Ken Harbaugh:

I don't think most people know the backstory, and I want to start there because the story of your relationship with John and your marriage to this man you loved is unforgettable. Can you tell us a little bit about John?

Jim Obergefell:

Oh, I love talking about John, so happy to do that. John and I met right before I came out back in 1992, the summer of '92. And that first time he scared the daylights out of me because he was out comfortable in his own skin and I was still closeted. I was teaching high school German. The next time we met, I had just come out and I thought, okay, well this is the second time I'm seeing this guy, meeting this guy, and thought that was it. Well, the third time was the charm. By that point, a mutual friend of ours was one of John's housemates and he invited me to a New Year's Eve party at John's house. And I went to that party and I like to say I never left. I knew from that meeting, there was something about John. I wanted him to be part of my life, even though he tried to talk me out of it. As he said, he had dated a lot of guys and had never ended well, he tried to talk me out of it, I wouldn't listen. So we became a couple and we just built our life together.

Early on in our relationship, we talked about marriage. But for us, at that point in the mid nineties, there was nowhere in the United States we could get married. And we agreed that for us, we didn't want it just to be a symbolic ceremony. We wanted to get married only when it actually meant something legal. So we assumed it would never happen. We just figured we're going to be together, we're never going to be able to say I do and have it mean anything. Well, the years go by, and John, this incredibly charming, intelligent, witty, well-spoken man, we just build our life together.

In 2011, 2012, I noticed that when he was walking around our condo, it just sounded different. Like one foot was slapping the floor harder than the other. And I finally convinced him to go see our doctor. And after months of tests and specialists, a third neurologist concurred that John had ALS. So we knew this was his death sentence. ALS, there's no cure. There's no effective treatment. And we knew the end was coming. Well, June 26th, 2013, I was standing next to his bed, holding his hand when news came out from the Supreme Court that they struck down the Defense of Marriage Act with their decision in United States versus Windsor. And I spontaneously leaned over, hugged and kissed him and said, "Well, let's get married." And luckily he said yes.

Now he was completely bedridden at that point. I was his full-time caregiver. And about four hours a week, the hospice nurses would visit, but we wanted to get married. We wanted to be able to say I do. We wanted to call each other husband and actually have it mean something. Because that was the first time in our almost 21 years together that marriage was a possibility and at least the federal government would recognize us. So we made it happen. And it wasn't an easy thing to do. We lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Ohio had its own state level version of the Defense of Marriage Act. So we could not get married in Ohio, but we made it happen because being able to say “I thee wed” was important to us. We wanted John to die a married man. So we got married inside a chartered medical jet on the tarmac of Baltimore, Washington International Airport. And we thought that was it. We thought that was the end of it. We were going to live out John's remaining days as husband and husband. And I have to say, we said”husband”... felt like a couple hundred times every day. "Would you like something to drink, husband?” “Good morning husband”, “Good night husband." Because that word actually meant something, something special, something important. And we just wanted John to die as a married man. And we wanted to be able to make our promises to each other public and legal. And that was all we wanted.

Ken Harbaugh:

You've got me in tears, Jim, because I'm a proud Ohioan and you're a proud Ohioan, but your jet comes back to Ohio, and your legal status once you land is undermined. You are not legally married. He's not your husband in Ohio at that point, like he was an hour earlier, in Maryland. And it's not just a symbolic thing, though the symbol of that is powerful and important. It had real world effects for you, for how his death certificate was written. Can you talk about that?

Jim Obergefell:

Absolutely. When we decided to get married, we knew on a very abstract level that Ohio would not recognize our marriage, but that was just abstract. We got back to Cincinnati, and because of a story that was written about us in the newspaper, we got married on a Thursday, that story came out online on Saturday. It was in the print edition on Sunday. Friends were at a party that weekend and they ran into a friend of theirs, a civil rights attorney in Cincinnati, and they brought up our story. And he hadn't read it yet. He hadn't heard about us. And he left the party and went home back to his office, read the story, and started doing some research. And then he reached out through those mutual friends to say, "Hey, would you guys be willing to meet?" So Al Gerhardstein, this incredible civil rights attorney in Cincinnati, came to our home and he did something neither one of us expected. He pulled out a piece of paper and it was a blank Ohio death certificate. He said, "Now, do you guys get it? When John dies, his last official record as a person, his last record as an Ohioan and as a United States citizen will be wrong, because Ohio will ignore your lawful Maryland marriage. And on his death certificate where it says marital status, they're going to say he was unmarried or single. And that field where it says “surviving spouse name”, Jim your name's not going to be there." And even though we knew Ohio wouldn't recognize our marriage, it was that conversation. And in the context of John's last record as a person, that state level Defense of Marriage Act became real, it became harmful. It became hurtful. And when Al asked us if we wanted to do something about it, John and I talked about it and we agreed that yes we did. Now, John, I have to say he was fully behind this, but he said, "Jim, just remember this is all on your shoulders because I can't do anything." But he thought it was the right thing to do. He agreed that we should do this. But he also gave me his okay to take time away from him to do this. So eight days after we got married, we filed suit in federal district court. And 11 days after we got married, I was in that courtroom in Cincinnati for the hearing on our case.

Ken Harbaugh:

Eventually that case with dozens of other plaintiffs makes its way to the Supreme Court. And in 2015, the Supreme Court at long last does the right thing and recognizes and requires every state to recognize your marriage. And I want to quote back to you what you said upon hearing that decision. You said, I'm guessing on the steps of the Supreme Court, I want to hear the story, but your words were, "It affirms what millions across the country already know to be true in their hearts. Our love is equal.

Jim Obergefell:

Correct. And you're right. That was on the steps of the Supreme Court after the decision was handed down and after I got to listen to the Chief Justice and Justice Thomas read their dissents saying that, no, we did not deserve the right to marry. Finally left the courtroom and made my way with Al, arm in arm with the other plaintiffs and attorneys behind us, and as you say, there were more than 30 plaintiffs in the case, more than 20 attorneys. Made our way through that crowd. And as you can imagine, the crowd on the courthouse plaza that day was joyful and exuberant and the air was electric. And we made our way through that crowd and went down to where the podium was set up and I got to read that statement. And for me that's really what that experience proved, is that yes, equal justice under law applies to all of us. And I have to say, sitting in the courtroom that day, once it finally sunk in that, yes we won, and the Supreme Court affirmed our right to marry, it was the first time in my life as an out gay man that I felt like an equal American. And that wasn't a feeling I was expecting to have, but it was a wonderful thing to realize sitting in that courtroom.

Ken Harbaugh:

We have this idea in America, and I think it's born of our better angels, but it has a downside, that the wheel of progress always turns forward. And we have this notion that if we work hard enough and we play our part, that our country's going to keep getting better, but it's not always the case. In 2015 did you have any idea? I mean, in 2015, I remember the feeling watching this clown run for the Republican nomination for president on the right, that there's no way that's going to happen. We're on the right track as a country. So I'm faulting myself just as much. Did you have any idea in 2015 that we would be where we are today?

Jim Obergefell:

Absolutely not. I mean, I do have to admit, even back in 2015, after the decision, there were queer rights organizations across the country that folded, they said, "We're done, we've won, we're equal." And even back then, I said, "No, we're not. We might have the right to marry, but in Ohio we can still be fired for being queer. We can be kicked out of our apartment for being queer. We are not equal. Our fight is not over." And honestly, all I have to do is say Kim Davis, clerk of court in Rowan County, Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. Masterpiece Bake Shop who refused to bake a cake. I mean, we haven't had marriage equality. We have had the ability to get married in all 50 states, and the states have to recognize our marriages, but we don't enjoy marriage equality. So even from June 26th, I knew this is a step forward, it's still not where we should be as a nation. But I thought we were continuing that progress forward, taking a step forward. I certainly didn't expect seven years later to be worried about the Supreme Court overturning marriage equality, and yet I am.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah, well you were one of the first, at least in my Google news alerts and Twitter feeds, to really raise the alarm when Justice Kennedy announced his retirement, you were reportedly despondent upon hearing the news. I gather you were sensing something in the air about what was coming. What was that feeling like?

Jim Obergefell:

It was a bit of terror and a lot of fear, because Justice Kennedy was the swing vote, the swing Justice in marriage equality. Obergefell, Windsor, Lawrence, these were such enormous strides forward for the queer community in the United States. And here was that Justice who was on our side and who interpreted the constitution to include us, which it's supposed to. I mean, the first three words of the constitution are we the people. He believed that we belong as part of “We the People”, and I was worried. And especially given the election in 2016, and knowing that that president was the one who was going to be nominating, well actually now I'm questioning myself. That was before he took office. Correct? My space time continuum has been messed up with-

Ken Harbaugh:

The bottom line is we had a president in Trump who did not get the popular vote, who violated every aspect of his oath of office, and one third of the Supreme Court are his nominees.

Jim Obergefell:

Correct. And that was enabled by Mitch McConnell, refusing to hold hearings for Merrick Garland. And so, yes, it's a Supreme Court now that clearly is not on our side. I mean, the majority of our current Supreme Court has made it clear that they are opposed to marriage equality. I mean, several of them dissented in that in Obergefell V. Hodges. And we have three more justices who clearly are not on our side. And worst of all, we have Justice Thomas writing that concurring opinion in the Dobbs decision that Obergefell V. Hodges, so marriage equality, Lawrence versus Texas, the right to not have intimate relations at home in the privacy of your own home criminalized, and also birth control. He is saying those should be overturned. That's a terrifying thing to have a Supreme Court Justice whose own marriage exists because of a Supreme Court decision saying that we do not deserve the right to marry. That's a terrifying thing. And I'm very concerned about really all of the civil rights progress we've made in this nation because of the Supreme Court.

Ken Harbaugh:

For context, Dobbs is the recent Supreme Court decision that overrules a half century of precedent in Roe V. Wade, the contraception case, Griswold, you mentioned Lawrence V. Texas and Obergefell. The irony which you alluded to is that in his litany of cases that relied on substantive due process that need to be revisited, he doesn't mention Loving versus Virginia, great plaintiff name by the way, right? Loving versus Virginia, which is the Supreme Court decision that validates interracial marriages, that allows you to marry whoever you love. It’s shocking that it took until 1967 for that to happen, but it's that decision on which Justice Thomas's marriage rests. And the selective amnesia, it's shocking from anybody, but from one of the nine most powerful people in America, I don't know what to read into it. Have you thought much about it? Is there a psychological element here?

Jim Obergefell:

All I can think is it comes down to, well, Loving v. Virginia impacts him directly, so he's not going to touch that because he benefits from that. But if there's another decision that benefits people he doesn't personally like, well then that's fair game. And it's also the selective amnesia and the rewriting of history that senators engage in related to this. Senator Cruz came out and said, "Well, Obergefell V. Hodges, it was the first time in more than 200 years of our nation's history that states weren't able to define marriage or to control marriage." No, you're forgetting Loving versus Virginia as well. So it's just this amnesia, this hatred towards people who are different that I just don't understand in our nation. I really don't.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm glad you brought up Ted Cruz because he is a great example of this performative bigotry. And he might be that kind of person in his heart, but has demonstrated in the past moments of awareness and insight. Right? But I wonder how many of these people who you think really do know better, I mean, Ted Cruz is not a dumb guy. I believe he was a Supreme Court clerk at one point, right? He was a top debater in the country. And yet when the cultural wins within the Republican Party blow a certain way, they get on their homophobic soap box and perform. I think another great example, because it's so recent and so in your face is this Republican Congressman who voted against the recent bill in the house. Do you want to take it from here? You know what I'm talking about? Tell us what this guy did.

Jim Obergefell:

Right. The Respect for Marriage Act, which would protect marriage equality at the federal level, he voted against it. And then three days later, he went to his son's wedding. His son who married a man. I don't even know what to say about that, honestly. I mean, I put myself in his son's place and I think I'm not sure I could've allowed my parent to come to my wedding, watching them do that. Knowing that, okay, you're going to come to my wedding and be all loving and say, "Congratulations, I'm happy for you, and now my son-in-law." And yet when you had the opportunity to vote your conscience, to vote to protect your very own son's marriage, three days earlier you chose not to? I think that's appalling. I struggle to put words to that. I just think that is a horrendous thing for a parent to do.

There's a party that claims they are pro-family. And I have said this over and over again, related to the Respect for Marriage Act and the threat to marriage equality. If you're pro family, voting to protect marriages and families, that's an easy decision. You should not even question that. If you are pro-family, you should vote in favor of the Respect for Marriage Act. But it comes down to the fact that our marriages, our families don't look like theirs. And I find it appalling. I find it hateful. I find it disgusting that people can claim they're pro-family and then vote against marriages, vote against families, and vote against their own children's best interest.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, you are doing something about it now, you are running for the Ohio State House as a Democrat in a pretty red area. I'm wondering what you're encountering, if there is this reservoir somewhere of decency within rank and file Republicans, because surely you're talking to them out on doors, or you just told me you were at the county fair before we hit the record button. I have got to believe that some of the performative jack-assery that we see from people like Cruz is not totally representative. Tammy Baldwin, senator Baldwin says that fellow senators and other legislators all the time from the Republican Party come up and say they support her privately. She's gay. And she says publicly, they can't afford to do it. Because, well, I think they can, but they're cowards, right? What are you seeing with the story you have and the moral authority you bring to this when you're out talking to regular Ohioans and Republicans in particular?

Jim Obergefell:

Well, I am certainly seeing Republicans disgusted with the extreme right wing actions that the Ohio State House has been taking, whether it's regarding the right to control your own body, to make decisions about your own body, whether it's attacks on marriage, whether it's so many things. I'm seeing a lot of rank and file Republicans really unhappy with what the party is doing, and what these extreme voices in the party are doing. They're saying “They don't represent me”, “This is not what I believe”, “This is not what I think.”

Now, my hope is that will turn into votes. Voting for the people who actually do believe and share some of those same values about treating people with respect and protecting marriage and saying that this gross invasion of privacy, whether it's in a doctor's office, whether it's in the privacy of your bedroom, whether it's with your pharmacist, making family planning decisions, people are really upset with this gross invasion of privacy that is just happening in so many ways.

So I'm absolutely seeing that from Republicans, and other people are just thoroughly disgusted with what the extreme right wing in the Ohio State House has been doing. Not to mention the corruption that this state house still is... I mean, it's under the cloud of corruption and the state house isn't focusing on things that actually makes life better for people. They are harming people and they're not doing things that actually make life better for people. Attacking transgender... One transgender girl athlete, attacking her and trying to write a law to deny her the right to play sports with her friends, that isn't making life better for anyone. They're focused on things like that, instead of actually let's make sure we have well paying jobs. Let's make sure we're protecting the environment because we only have one planet. Let's make sure we're fighting for healthcare for everyone. Those are the things people care about, not these culture wars, and yet it's the extreme right that keeps pushing those things and focusing on those things that don't make anyone's life better. And honestly, that's a big driver for me running for office. I believe in working to make things better. I believe in making things better for others. And this extreme right wing, they don't. They believe in attacking others. They believe in pushing these extreme positions that don't represent the people of Ohio.

Ken Harbaugh:

Probably a good time to remind folks that the Republican dominated Ohio State House has been ranked the most corrupt in the United States. One out of 50, I guess we're leading in something, right, Jim?

Jim Obergefell:

Yeah. That's a great thing to lead in. I mean, that's appalling. I mean, corruption is rife in the state house. And so many of those elected officials, they've forgotten that they're public servants. They are not serving the public. They're serving their egos. They're serving their pocketbooks, and they're serving an extreme right wing agenda that does not reflect the people of Ohio. They're undermining the right to vote. They're getting involved with teachers, making decisions on how to teach their classes. They're denying the right to teach our nation's history. That's doing no one a favor. That's not preparing their kids for life in a diverse, complicated world. None of that is making things better.

Ken Harbaugh:

One area where our activism has overlapped, Jim, is with veterans. And I would love for you to share a little bit about your family history. And we've done episodes on this, but we got The Pact Act, The Burn Pits Act passed, and you're close with some people who I care a lot about who have made that happen, but you're from a pretty serious military family, right?

Jim Obergefell:

I am, my oldest brother was in the Army National Guard. My brother-in-law was in the army. My dad served in the US Navy in World War II. He served in the Pacific on Guam, the Marshall Islands, Pearl Harbor. And to me that just really represents in my family this belief in this valuing of public service. I mean, serving the public. I mean, I was a high school German teacher. I have other teachers in my family. I have nurses in my family. Military service. So we believe in serving others. We believe in being part of our community and making things better.

I have to say one of my favorite things related to my dad's service, back in 2015, I had the opportunity to go to Guam. And while I was on Guam, I got to go see the airfield my dad helped build as a Navy CB in World War II. I got to go to the Memorial for the war in the Pacific and lay a wreath in my father's memory. And it was one of those moments when I felt closer to my dad than I had in a long time. My dad died in 2000. So it was for me, just an amazing opportunity to be where my dad was, where he gave to our nation and served our nation. And to be there and to see something he helped create was such a wonderful opportunity for me. And I'm really, really grateful that I had that chance.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, I wonder what he would think of you cementing the Obergefell name in history the way you have, and changing the way everyone thinks about the right to marry in this country.

Jim Obergefell:

I think he would be surprised. Well, I know my entire family, my siblings, they're all still surprised that I became part of this. And I know part of that is they can't imagine doing something similar, but they knew and loved John. John was part of their family. And I always told John that my family loved him more than they loved me. And I think that's true. So they understood why we did this. They were behind us. They supported us. But they look at that experience and what I did and what I've gone through and becoming the face and name of marriage equality, and they just shake their heads. They're like, "Jim, not something we could do. We're glad you did, but how did you do it?" So I know they're proud of me and I love that. And like I say, they've been nothing but supportive from the moment I came out to the moment I introduced John to them, my entire life, my family has been incredibly supportive, loving, and I'm really fortunate in that respect.

Ken Harbaugh:

I've got a philosophical question for you. When you see coverage of the case, of its implications, when you read about Obergefell versus Hodges, do you see yourself in that case, or is it a character apart from you? Is there a part of you that the public now owns that you have to let go? Do you know what I mean?

Jim Obergefell:

That's a really good question, Ken. In some ways I have to remind myself when I hear Obergefell used on the news or I read it in the newspaper, I just have to remind myself they're talking about me. So sometimes I do have to do that, but I will say, I think the thing I'm really grateful for is that I became part of this. I became kind of a household name for all the right reasons. Because I love John and we were doing the right thing and I got to share our story. I got to talk about John all the time.

So I feel like the world, the country, people in the United States got to know me as me, because I was fighting for the most important person in my world. And we were doing it simply because we wanted to exist. So I feel like they know me. I feel like people in this district, people in Ohio, people across the country, they have gotten a window into who I am as a person. And I'm just me. I've been just Jim from the moment this started, I've always been who I am. And I hear that again and again, that people are like, "Jim, you're just you, you're just authentic." And to me, that's the best possible thing I can hear.

The public Jim Obergefell really is kind of the Jim Obergefell. But like I say, I do have to remind myself oftentimes, Jim, they're talking about you, because it just doesn't seem possible that my name has become shorthand for marriage equality. I mean, not something I ever dreamt would happen, but it also happened for all the right reasons. So yeah, it's this weird spot. You're absolutely right, Ken, it's an unusual place for someone to be, but I'm okay with it because it represents something really good and it represents our country taking a step forward in the right direction, making progress. So I don't know if I answered that question at all, but…

Ken Harbaugh:

That was great. No, and I would say that's a beautiful note to end on. I think we have our episode title, Just Jim. But I told my 17 year old daughter, Katie, that I was talking to you today. And she said, "I would love to know if he's ever ordering something at Starbucks or something like that, and they call out his name, does the place all turn to the counter to see what Jim Obergefell looks like?" Because you are name famous, right? You're not face famous.

Jim Obergefell:

Right. I can't think of any situation like that. I mean, there have been a couple times where I've checked into a hotel or maybe back when I would check in, not online for a flight, there have been a couple times where that has happened, where people know who I am. But typically, no, I mean, I will say there have been times, well, a lot of times where people see me on the street, especially when I lived in Washington, DC, people recognized me. Not surprising in DC. But also in Cincinnati. People knew me in Cincinnati and people would stop me on the street. And it's one of those things people often say, "Jim, does that get tiring? Does that bother you, that people will recognize you and stop you?" Not one bit, because honestly, when they recognize me and come up to me, they want to share something really wonderful. They want to talk about their loved one, their spouse, their partner, their child, someone they love who was able to get married because John and I made that decision to say yes, and we were part of something really amazing. So it never gets old. I love it. And more than anything, I love that I've had young people come out to me. They've never come out to anyone else. They've never even admitted to themselves that they're gay, but they tell me. And earlier this year I was at the University of Tennessee and a young woman came up and said, "Jim, I just want you to know that if it weren't for Obergefell V. Hodges and marriage equality, I would've committed suicide." It's moments like that. How could I ever get upset about that? And it's moments like that that just... It's this beautiful moment that just reinforces how important it is to do the right thing, to fight for the things that matter. And to make that decision to stand up and say, "This is wrong, and I want to do something about it." And to know this one woman specifically, it saved her life. And I know she's far from alone. And to me that's the most wonderful thank you, the most wonderful gift. And no matter what I might have gone through that was challenging or stressful or difficult, that makes it all worthwhile.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, Jim, we are all better off for you and John having taken on this fight. It's not over, clearly. The wheel doesn't always turn forward. We have to keep pushing it. And that's why we do shows like this. Thank you so much for coming on. I said it at the top, but I'll say it again. It is truly an honor to talk to you.

Jim Obergefell:

Well, thank you, Ken. I've really enjoyed this. Again thank you for inviting me on. Anytime. It was great.

Ken Harbaugh:

You got it.

Thanks again to Jim for joining me.

To learn more about Jim, visit his website, obergefellforohio.com.

You can also find Jim on both Instagram and Twitter at @JimObergefell

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected] We're always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more follow us on Twitter @team_harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate and review.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

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