Of all the political events that have happened in my lifetime, and there have been some pretty significant ones in the past two decades, the one that I will go down in history as one of the biggest cultural impacts of the 21st Century is the Supreme Court decision to nationally legalize gay marriage, Obergefell v. Hodges (2015). That’s why, when I heard the named plaintiff in the landmark case, Jim Obergefell, was speaking at a nearby liberal arts college, I dropped everything, skipped my Econ lecture, and drove 45 minutes outside of Columbus on a Tuesday night to Dennison University.
When I finally found the small auditorium, I was surprised to see that the leading face of the biggest chapter of gay-rights history was a rather small, soft-spoken, and wearing a polka-dot bow-tie. He wrung his hands as he spoke and barely moved from his spot in center stage for the whole hour. But that is appropriate for the man who introduced himself a “accidental activist”, though he didn’t speak like one. Jim began his talk, not by highlighting his historic win, but by talking about the issues facing marriage equality today. He began by highlighting the issue of states working around marriage equality laws by ways like refusing to give marriage licenses to gay couples, which he says “completely goes against what it means to be American. It reminds me of the words on the steps of the Supreme Court building: ‘Equal Justice Under the Law’. Isn’t that what we were asking for? Equal treatment under the law?”. In the face of all the injustice Jim faced in his fight for marriage equality, he kept reminding us in the audience that it was the courts that achieved that equal treatment and provided that eventual equal treatment.
As to why Jim describes himself as an accidental activist, his story explains this self-label. The story of why and how Jim became a starring face and name in the LGBT community is tragic, romantic, empowering, and will without a doubt have more than one Lifetime movie made about it in the next 10 years. Jim was not an active protestor or fighter for gay rights for most of his life. He grew up in small-town Ohio and moved to Cincinnati for college. Due to the city passing a resolution making it illegal to make any laws protecting LGBT rights in 1992, Jim says Cincinnati got the nickname “the town without pity”. He was happy to live a comfortable, quiet life, until his partner John of almost 20 years was diagnosed with ALS. Jim became John’s full-time caregiver and was surprised when people would applaud him for it saying “What else could I do? We made promises to each other to be there, to protect each other, in sickness and in health. Even if we couldn’t get married”. That changed in 2013 when the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down in Windsor v. USA. John and Jim still couldn’t get married in Ohio, but they could in Maryland. So John, bed-bound, and Jim got into a medical jet, financed by their friends and family, and were married on the tarmac at the Baltimore airport.
Jim said he and John, now married, settled in for their last few months together. Until civil rights lawyer, Al Gernstein, touched by their story, informed them that Jim would not be named as John’s husband on his death certificate. “It broke our hearts”, Jim said to the silent audience, “but more importantly, it pissed us off”. With Al’s help, he filed suit in federal court and won the right to be named John’s legal husband, but the ruling was overturned in the US 6th Circuit Court. At that point John had passed away, but to Jim “I couldn’t not fight, because I wouldn’t be keeping my promises to John”. In January of 2015, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and Jim, along with 30 other plaintiffs on the case, sat and listened to the arguments. When Jim described the moment he realized they had won, he still has a faraway look and a huge smile on his face. “That was the first time in my life, as an openly gay man, I felt like a real American”.
Jim ended his story saying, “This was all because I loved John. And I had to keep my promises to him, to protect our marriage, and fight for other people to have that right too”. While watching Jim speak about what he has to go through to earn a fundamental right, I wondered if he lost a little faith in democracy. He had seen judges, lawyers, protestors, talking heads, and everything in-between tell him his commitment to his husband was not protected by his country and was fought every step of the way. But in becoming involved in fighting for the right to marry, Jim said he found a new love and respect for his country through the court system, “This experience has given me the utmost respect for the courts in this country. The courts exist so that our rights don’t get infringed upon. People ask me ‘why couldn’t you have just waited for public opinion to change?’ and my response is always ‘Because we didn’t have to’”. By that, he meant that the courts gave him a way to change not only the law, but people’s minds. The courts gave him a way to make his country include him in their democracy, which he sums up beautifully, “One person can change the world, this experience proved that to be true”.
The moment he asked for any questions, I shot my hand in the air. Though he seemed so impressed with the courts in how they protected free democracy and his rights as an American, from his first few words of his speech I knew wasn’t naïve either in thinking one decision has cured things forever. I asked him what he thought could be done about the ways states have worked around his historic fight, such as refusing to give marriage licenses to gay couples. Jim rephrased it saying “they are trying to work against the legitimacy of my marriage to John”. He answered by saying it is a really difficult problem, especially when there are bills being proposed like the one in Georgia that will label gay marriages as “parody marriages”. His advice for fighting this form of democratic erosion was to not be afraid to take it to the courts as “it’s where these questions belong”, and “vote out the bigots, because only when we have representatives that represent all of America, not just a select few, will these kinds of flaws in democracy end”.
Hearing first-hand from someone who created a chance for a whole large group of people to feel like they belonged in our democracy, I see how important independent courts are to preserving democracy. The integrity of the courts is what allowed Jim to fight his way for his rights, and his talk proved courts can not only change people’s minds and a country’s culture, it can preserve democracy.