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The Accidental Activist

You know Jim Obergefell.

You may not have known until you read this article that he
and his late husband John were the catalysts for the June 26
ruling granting equal marriage rights to LGBT citizens that were promised to them by the U.S. Constitution.

But you know Jim.

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He’s unassuming and pleasant. Well-spoken, even-keeled. Not unlike many you meet in this polite heartland we all call home.

Outwardly, he bears none of the traits you’d typically associate with vigorous political advocacy, and you’d be hard-pressed to guess he has spent the last two years, the center of a long, drawn-out battle in the highest court in the land.

But—as the world just witnessed—there’s a helluva lot of fight in Jim Obergefell.

When John was diagnosed with ALS in 2011, they knew they wanted to be married and they were—two years later on the tarmac at Baltimore Washington International Airport in Maryland—June 26, in fact, a day that now carries twice the significance for Jim. John, too ill to leave the couple’s home for months, had to be flown via medical transport plane. The wedding was performed quickly on Maryland soil, as that state was nearby and only required one partner to acquire the license, with just a 48-hour waiting period.

Twenty-one years. That’s how long he and John had been together, and when faced with the passing of the love of his life, Jim couldn’t stand the notion that Ohio wouldn’t recognize his husband as John Obergefell on his own death certificate.

A single name. A singular love. A singular desire to ensure that the legal system wouldn’t rob him of honoring in full the two decades of his life he devoted to John.

That mission, fueled by the millions of gay activists and allies who have worked tirelessly before him, became the catalyst for what Fred Sainz, vice president of communications at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), called “the largest conferral of rights on LGBT people in the history of our country,” a tidal wave of reform that washed up on the steps of the United States Supreme Court.

He fought for his marriage and his right to be united legally and in perpetuity with his husband, and millions fought with him.

And we all won.

“The Obergefell Ruling.” That’s the way it’s gonna read from now until the end of history. It’s got to be so difficult to even grasp the impact of something like that. It is. It’s surreal. On one level, purely intellectually, I get it. When people say this is historic, this is landmark, and all of that … I get it on that level. It’s still kind of the emotional, very deeply personal level where it hasn’t really hit me yet. I’m actually a little surprised that it still hasn’t, but I think that’s because I’ve just been constantly busy and going and doing that I haven’t really had the chance to sit down, relax, and reflect. I think that’s when it’s really going to hit me. At least that’s my thought. I could be completely wrong.

You’ve said very consistently and very humbly that you were just fighting for your marriage. Now you have this story that’s not only resonated with millions, but also the highest court in the land. I’m still struck by that. Oh, it’s been amazing. … Even just our story when it came out in the Cincinnati Enquirer. It’s amazing how it resonated with people and how people connected to it. I think a big part of that is that everyone loses someone they love, someone they care about, and I think it just brought the whole issue down to that very relatable level. It’s been amazing. It really has. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t have someone just touch me personally.

I think I was in Philadelphia when this happened … I was just walking down the street and a family, husband and wife and two kids, they stopped me and said, “Hey, can we take your picture with our children?” And then they tweeted it and just thanked me for creating a better world for their kids. Things like that happen all the time. It just really brings it home to me really how much all of this touches people across the country. Those are like my favorite things, those little moments that happen. It’s pretty incredible. [This] was really just fighting for what everyone says is important.

Can you take me back to the day of the ruling? Can you describe the way you felt when you heard the decision? The chief justice said, “Justice Kennedy will be reading the first decision.” And Justice Kennedy started speaking, and the first thing out of his mouth was our case number, and it startled me, and I kind of jumped and made a noise. For some reason I was just really stunned that ours was the first ruling that day. I don’t know why it surprised me, but it just did.

About two sentences into his summary judgment, I just started crying and I cried the whole time. It was tears of joy, tears of sadness because I missed John … bittersweet, but absolutely much more on the sweet side because I got to fight for my husband. I got to fight for our marriage, and here is a Supreme Court justice saying in court that, Yep, John and Jim, you guys exist. You matter. Your relationship, your marriage, is just as important, just as valuable as any other marriage. It was an incredible thing to hear and to feel. Joy … absolute, joy.

Such powerful words for many of us to read at home, let alone hearing them in a historic legal judgment with your last name on it…
I know. The last paragraph … I mean, in court, they don’t read the entire ruling—they’ll read a summary. But the last thing that he read was that last paragraph in the judgment. It just was beautiful. Just the feeling of happiness in that courtroom and the tears I saw all around the place; it was unbelievable.

We read a lot about you and John and him getting sick, but I don’t hear you get to talk as much about the man you loved. I want you to tell me about John as a person. What do you miss about him? Oh, I miss his wit. He was one of the wittiest people I’ve ever known. His ability to walk into any situation and understand it and kind of intuitively understand what’s going on—who the people are, the kind of characters involved … he just had this incredible way of reading situations and fitting into that situation perfectly. He could just—no matter what it was, where it was, who the people were—he could just jump right in, fit in, and just make people feel like they were important.

I think back, you know, he would make friends everywhere we go. We’d walk into a store and 15 minutes later we’d walk out, and we now suddenly had a friend. And the amazing thing was maybe a year later we’d go back to that store, and if that same person happened to be there, he would remember very small things that they talked about, and he would bring it up and ask about it. He just had this great way of making people feel like he cared. He paid attention. That always amazed me because I just don’t have that kind of memory. Even if I could remember something, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to bring it out the way he could. So he was just charming … charming and witty and incredibly generous.

Those are three pretty great qualities to have, absolutely. What would he think of all this? Would he get a kick out of you having to be the person out in front? Oh, absolutely, he would chuckle [laughs]. Not that I was an incredibly introverted person because I’ve sung on stage, I’ve been in musicals, I was a teacher, I was a corporate trainer. Being in front of people and doing things is kind of who I am. But he would really find it humorous that here I am the one who’s going into these situations where in the past I would kind of let him be the one charming people and leading social interactions, and now I’m the one doing it. So he would find that really funny.

More than anything, though, he’d be happy. If he were here he’d be like, “Jim, you just keep doing all that because I’m going to hang out here behind a door or in a corner.” No matter how social he was and how charming he was, he didn’t want to be the center attention or feel like a spectacle, so if he were here he’d say “Jim, just keep doing what you’re doing. I’ll be back here and when you’re ready to go you let me know.”

I’ve seen you refer to yourself as an accidental activist. Before John got sick, what level would you say you were aware and involved? Well, [the case] was personal. It was about our marriage. We were not activists in any way shape or form. Our brand of activism was, “Where do I sign the check?” That was it. I really do think of myself [as an accidental activist] because it wasn’t something we ever did in any way other than financially. But suddenly, here was this situation, that kind of perfect storm, or things where the activist inside of me was awakened. So that’s why I consider myself accidental, because it wasn’t planned. It wasn’t who I was. It just was circumstances brought it out.

And, as someone who wasn’t previously an impassioned activist, how quickly did that feeling of fight come out of you? Was it something that surged to the surface immediately? Oh yeah, absolutely. Not once, even when John died and even when the Sixth [Circuit] Court of Appeals ruled against us, not once did I ever think, “Ohh, you know what, I’m gonna step back from this and give up and go back to the way things were.” Never once did I think that. Absolutely, something switched on inside of me and I had something that was so important to me that it didn’t matter. I was going to keep fighting.

Obviously, it takes on a much bigger perspective, like it isn’t just about John and me. It isn’t about just our marriage. It’s about so much more than that. I’m really happy that that’s happened to me, and I’ve discovered that it’s important to me to fight for something bigger than myself, and I’ll be doing that going forward.

To that end, can you point to any moments or interactions with people that kept that fire burning? There have been so many. Right now my brain is so full of things, and most of the interactions I can think of right now are the ones that have [come] after the decision. Just when we filed suit, I mean, the cards that we got from around the world of people thanking us for fighting for equality. We would get drawings, poems, pictures; it was really all of those kind of personal things where people actually went out of their way to track us down and to send something or to stop me somewhere and to just hug me because they couldn’t think of anything to say. You know, talking about someone that they care about and love and why our fight was important to them or that person that they love. There’s so many of those, and that’s honestly what kept me going all the time is just those small moments when people felt moved and went out of their way to tell me something; to tell a story, to thank me. There’s way too many of those to count.

The Ohio gay marriage ban in 2004 doesn’t seem like very long ago on the timeline. From a gay man’s perspective, was there a time when you felt that cultural shift in your own life to a higher level of acceptance? We started feeling that shift in really the early-2000s but especially in 2004. In the city of Cincinnati in 1994 there was a ballot issue that passed, and it amended the city charter that said no laws could be passed to protect the LGBT community. Cincinnati was well known as the most-unfriendly city in the country for the LGBT community because of it. But in the early-2000s the effort started to repeal that, and in 2004—so the same year the state amendment passed related to same-sex marriage—that same election, that was repealed in Cincinnati. And then a few years later, John and I, a friend of ours was running for city council. We threw a fundraiser for him—an openly gay man—and he was elected. So for me, even though it’s weird to say the year the state amendment passed, that’s the year my city started saying, “You know what? That was wrong. We’re gonna change things.” Chris was elected, he’s still a city councilman, and the city has just implemented so many laws and policies that protect the LGBT community and make our city a much more equal place.

When we filed suit, we filed suit against the State of Ohio and the City of Cincinnati. To be in federal court and to have the city solicitor stand up and say, “Your honor, we agree with John and Jim. That constitutional amendment is unconstitutional, and we will not fight them on that.” That’s a pretty incredible thing to hear in a federal courtroom. I know there’s local, there’s state, there’s national, but for me, a lot of it comes down to the place I live. So mid-2000s is really when Cincinnati kind of stood up and said, “This is who we are as a city, and it’s a pretty damn good place now.”

That’s something you don’t need as much time to reflect on: now, I am truly an equal in my own city…Absolutely. They proclaimed John’s and my wedding day—July 11, 2013—as “John Arthur and Jim Obergefell Day” in the city. Then oral arguments day [for the Supreme Court case]—April 28,, 2015—they were worried about John being forgotten so they proclaimed that “John Arthur Day” in the city. It’s incredible. You know, I’ve always loved Cincinnati, but I love it a whole lot more over the past 10 years.

Let’s transition there to your experience with Columbus. You worked a lot with Stonewall the last year and served as grand marshal in our recent Pride parade. Yeah, well, it’s funny. One of my brothers and his family lived in Columbus for several years … actually my niece grew up there. So we would be down there, but that was Gahanna, and I never really spent much time in Columbus. Then John and I started going up every so often to German Village, just started to get to know it. But for me, really it’s been this past year that I’ve really started to fall in love with Columbus.

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I was in D.C. in early March for an HRC conference and I met a group of people from Columbus, and they kind of adopted me and I just made all these great friends. … I actually feel kind of bad that I never really understood or discovered just what a great city Columbus is for the LGBT community. I feel like I’ve missed something for years, but I’m glad that I finally realized it and discovered that. So yeah, I really have gotten to like Columbus. I’m going to be up there on a pretty regular basis now, which is kind of fun. I love how there’s been this much more frequent cross-pollination between businesses in Columbus and Cincinnati. I love that there’s more of a relationship, like Bakersfield and The Eagle from Cincinnati going to Columbus, Homage going to Cincinnati … only good can come of that. 

So what’s next? This is a battle won, but it’s not the whole battle. I think this is the closest thing this generation has had to a civil rights-type movement. Can you speak to that? I think this ruling, but then also what happened in Charleston and other things, it’s just this unfortunate illustration that as a country, as a society, we can take a step forward but unfortunately we also continue to take steps backward. Even though marriage equality is a great thing to celebrate, it’s just too clear that we’re still not living up to the ideals of our Constitution and those ideals of equality and everyone being guaranteed the same rights. We’re still not there, and it’s not just the LGBT community. It’s still racial. It’s still gender. It’s absolutely exciting when good things happen, but it also, I think, just illustrates how much more work we have to do in all aspects of equality. 

Because this fight goes beyond just legal paperwork and financial benefits. This is the court stepping in and making it 100 times harder to discriminate… Here’s the highest court in the land again saying, “Our constitution is what governs our country.” It’s what says all of us are equal, and we need to live up to that. We need to reinforce that. We need to say, “Yes, that’s actually the case,” and it’s good when that happens. I think it helps everyone because, you know, here it is again saying, “Every American, we’re the same. We’re equal.” We can’t hear that enough.

How many people do you think know that this started in Ohio? I don’t think it’s common knowledge at this point that a name people will be reading about in a history book will be that of a man born in Sandusky, Ohio. You know, I don’t think so either. Even in my hometown. “Obergefell” is not an incredibly common name, and there are a lot of us in Sandusky, and it wasn’t until somebody even like specifically told my hometown newspaper, “You do realize Obergefell of Obergefell v. Hodges grew up here and graduated from Sandusky High School?” They had no idea, and I’m fine with it—it doesn’t bother me one bit. But I think it just illustrates how, to your point, I don’t think people really completely grasp yet or really think about Ohio when they think about this case.

Outside of Columbus, I don’t believe too many people connect this state with any fight for LGBT rights whatsoever. It’s not the state’s reputation, that’s for sure. No they don’t. Not at all. And I know a lot of people in Cincinnati love it because Cincinnati did have such a conservative, such a narrow-minded reputation. So many people love it. They’re like, “This came from Cincinnati!” It makes them laugh, and it makes them proud.

Of all the things we ever thought would be an export from Cincinnati—or Ohio—it probably wasn’t the fight for marriage equality. Definitely not in 1994 or 2004… So true.

Obergefell will tell his story in full thanks to a deal for a new book, tentatively titled 21 Years to Midnight: The Promise That Brought Marriage Equality, co-authored by Washington Post reporter Debbie Cenziper. It’s slated for a June 2016 release—the one-year anniversary of his landmark case. Fox 2000 Pictures has also recently secured rights for a film about Obergefell and the case.

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Travis Hoewischer

I've been working in journalism in central Ohio for more than a decade, and have been lucky enough to be a part of (614) Magazine since the very first issue. Proud to live in a city that still cares – and still reads.