Plaintiff in marriage equality decision speaks to students


Jim Obergefell

Jennifer Verzuh and Jennifer Verzuh

“What do I stand for? What’s important to me? What am I willing to fight for?” Jim Obergefell repeatedly stood up and asked himself and the crowd before him in the grand ballroom of the Student Union Wednesday night.

Obergefell, who attended graduate school at Bowling Green State University over twenty years ago, returned to the University this week to deliver a speech about his involvement in the landmark Supreme Court case which legalized same sex marriage in all fifty states.* He was introduced by Tobias Spears, the Senior Coordinator for LGBT Programs and Services at the University, President Ellen Mazey, and Board of Trustees member Steve Daley.*

Obergefell said he never set out to be an activist but it was his love for his late husband, John Arthur, that made him one.

“I was never an activist. never ever,” he said. “I’ve referred to myself as an accidental activist because circumstances brought that out.”

After his longtime partner was diagnosed with ALS, a terminal disease, the two decided to get married in Maryland, as same sex marriage was illegal at the time in Ohio.

Obergefell described it as “the happiest moment of my life.”

“We felt different better, more complete,” he said. “That’s all we wanted, to get married and live out John’s remaining days as husband and husband, not legal strangers.”

Five days after their marriage though they spoke with a civil rights attorney when he pulled out a blank Ohio death certificate.

“‘Do you realize when John dies his last official record as a person will be incorrect?’” he asked them. “Ohio will say he’s unmarried, and Jim, your name will not be there as surviving spouse.

“Our hearts broke and then we got pissed off,” Obergefell said, noting that the decision was surprisingly easy to make. “We realized we were willing to fight for our love.”

“[Marriage is] the chance to say in public and for the record this is the person I love this is the person I’ve committed to, this is the person I will do anything for and marriage gives you that ability. And the recognition,” he said. “The fact that your government acknowledges your relationship and says, ‘Yes, you exist.’ And that’s what drove us to file suit. We simply wanted to exist in the state of Ohio’s eyes.”

Eight days after their marriage they filed suit against the state of Ohio. Although the two initially won their case, it was overturned and eventually reached the Supreme Court, at which time Arthur had passed away.

Obergefell,the lead plaintiff, (along with thirty-four others) said he cried when the Supreme Court announced their decision in support of same sex marriage.

“We won. John could now rest in peace,” he said. “It was a mixture of joy, sadness and satisfaction. you know sadness because John wasn’t there to experience it…..I felt good that I had lived up to my promises to him, to love honor and protect him and that really was what it was all about.”

The newfound fame and attention is surreal, Obergefell said and he’s still adjusting to his new role as a public figure and activist.

“Honestly I think it’s still sinking in. I think back on my life and I never wanted to be someone that people recognized and would stop on the street. That’s my life now.”

While it’s certainly a change to go from being a self proclaimed private person to someone well known and recognizable, it’s certainly worth it to Obergefell.

“I’ve realized I don’t mind it. It actually means a lot to me when people stop me on the street to thank me and tell me a story and to tell me why the fight means something to them or someone they love,” he said. “I’m happy to do it because I did it all for the right reason. I did it for my husband because I loved him and wanted to live up to my commitments to him. So being in the middle of all of it, it’s a small price to pay.

Obergefell said one of the biggest things he hopes people took away from his speech was that individual stories matter.

“I think about the progress in the gay rights movement over the past twenty years and I think a big part of the success we’ve seen has been because people have told their stories, people have come out.”

2010 BGSU alum Leo Almeida was certainly was moved by Obergefell’s story, despite already being familiar with the case and his life.

“This is the first time I’ve heard his personal story from him. I’ve read it before but to actually hear it from him and the struggle that they had, there’s something everyone can relate to no matter what their sexuality is,” he said.

Almeida, who came up for the event from Columbus, said he felt particularly inspired after listening to Obergefell and the work he’s done.

“I work in politics and this makes me want to go out and do even more social justice work,” Almeida said.

Sophomore Hanna Modene also felt very encouraged upon hearing Obergefell’s speech.

“He’s a really big inspiration to me. I honestly never thought I’d see same sex marriage get legalized this quickly,” Modene said. “To see it happen so quickly it makes you wonder what else can happen, what else can change, like education or women’s healthcare. It’s just really inspiring.”

Obergefell said that while progress has been made there’s still work to do and he will continue to be actively involved in social justice issues, even as recently as last week going to Washington to lobby for the Equality Act.

“Just knowing that we have marriage equality across the country, we’re still not equal. We still don’t have the same rights and protections as other Americans,” he said. “Our country has a lot to do to live up to equality for all.”