Two days after a judge issued a court order requiring his home state to recognize his marriage, James Obergefell is still blown away by the media attention he and his dying spouse, John Arthur, have received after they spent $13,500 to wed in Maryland and sue Ohio to recognize the union.
During an interview with the Washington Blade on Wednesday from his home in Cincinnati, Obergefell called the experience of flying to Maryland to marry his partner of 20 years, returning home to sue for marriage recognition and having the court order his state to recognize it “surreal and honestly, kind of hard to believe.”
“Just the reaction that we received worldwide was touching and amazing. But then for it to turn into this?” Obergefell said. “We’re blown away, we’re thrilled and happy to show the world that we’re people too. We’re just like your neighbors, just like your kids. All we want is exactly what you have.”
The story of Obergefell and Arthur, both 47, and their marriage went viral earlier this month. Obergefell married his spouse Arthur, who’s dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS,) also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, on July 11.
Their friends and family donated about $13,500 for them to fly to Maryland on July 11 in a special jet equipped with medical equipment to serve Arthur’s needs. The couple married aboard the plane as it sat on the tarmac before returning to Cincinnati the next day.
After they sued the state of Ohio to recognize their marriage, U.S. District Judge Timothy Black issued a temporary restraining order on state officials, including Gov. John Kasich, requiring Ohio to recognize the union in Arthur’s remaining days. Arthur’s death certificate must denote that he’s legally married and Obergefell is his surviving spouse.
Obergefell said he learned the judge put the order in place on Monday while at home with family — including with Arthur’s aunt, who married the couple in Maryland — after attending the hearing in which Black said he’d rule later that day. The news came from the couple’s lawyer via telephone.
“I got the call from our attorney, and he simply said, ‘We won!’” Obergefell said. “So then I got his email and I read the whole 15 pages, or most of them, to John and his aunt and his uncle after we jumped up and kissed and hugged and cried and all of that, then I just read through the document. And then, friends came over that night and we shared a bottle of Champagne.”
The judge’s decision to hand down a temporary restraining order even before he reached a final decision in the lawsuit was expected for Obergefell, who requested such action on Friday as part of the couple’s lawsuit. Still, when the order was handed down, Obergefell said the decision was “surprising, gratifying and just incredible.”
Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, said in a statement the great lengths the couple went to marry demonstrates the commitment of their love as he criticized Ohio law because it “cruelly denies them the freedom to marry at home.” A state constitutional amendment passed by Ohio voters in 2004 prohibits same-sex marriage.
“No couple should be forced to leave home to make legal their love and commitment to each other, and as a federal court this week rightly affirmed, no couple should suffer the indignity of returning home only to be told, ‘Your marriage doesn’t matter here,’” Wolfson said.
The order, which expires on Aug. 5, may have come just in time for the couple. Obergefell said Arthur has good days and bad days, but his health continues to decline.
“He has lost even more ability to speak,” Obergefell said. “I mean, a sentence or two is about all he can manage. ALS is a horrible disease; it just doesn’t let up.”
It’s hard to say how much time remains for Arthur, but Obergefell continues to have a positive mindset.
“In my heart of hearts,” Obergefell said. “I want to say indefinitely, I want to say many months more, but I don’t know. I wake up everyday, and my day is all around, ‘Be here longer. Be here longer.”
The reason the couple filed the lawsuit and went to such lengths to marry was Arthur’s death certificate. After the couple married on July 11, their lawyer informed them that Arthur’s death certificate would not designate him as married, nor would it identify Obergefell as his surviving spouse.
“It ripped my heart out,” Obergefell said. “Hearing that was enough to say, OK. I can’t stand for that. I can’t let any other gay couple stand for that. It isn’t right.”
But the decision to file the lawsuit resulted not just from the issue of the death certificate or state recognition of their marriage, but the idea that their union should be treated equally under the law.
“So it’s not the only thing; it was just the lightbulb going off over your head that — I felt responsibility, not just to John, not just to our marriage, but other people,” Obergefell said. “So, it’s not just that. We need to be equal. Simply put.”
Gov. Kasich, who opposes same-sex marriage, has the option of filing to a higher court the restraining order put in place by Black. No word has come yet from the governor’s office on whether he’ll do so.
Obergefell has a singular message for Kasich: Stand back and allow the court ruling that enables the legal recognition of him and his dying spouse to stand.
“My message to him is Gov. Kasich, we are citizens of Ohio, we are asking for nothing more than the same rights, responsibilities and benefits that every other married couple in the state receives,” Obergefell said. “That’s it. Do the right thing, sit back, and allow us to be Ohioans and Americans.”
Obergefell said he chose Maryland as the place where he and Arthur would marry because obtaining the marriage license in the state requires the presence of only one person — not both parties in the relationship — and because of the limited 48-hour waiting period that must pass before a wedding. Obergefell traveled by himself to obtain the license, then the couple returned together for the ceremony at BWI airport.
During the trip, Obergefell said one thought was continuously running through his head: “I can’t believe this is happening; I can’t believe this is happening.”
“That was closely preceded by, ‘Oh my goodness, we have such wonderful friends and family who — without prompting — jumped up and said, ‘We will make this happen for you,’” Obergefell said. “We will help make this reality.”
But when asked how it felt to have to spend $13,500 to travel to another state to marry when opposite-sex couples can do the same thing at their local courts, Obergefell said he was “pissed.”
“We live blocks from the Hamilton County Courthouse,” Obergefell said. “It makes me angry that we couldn’t just go there. And you know, that would still be physically demanding on him, but that would be a matter of getting him into his power wheelchair and taking him a few blocks to appear in person, and then coming home.”
Grant Stancliff, a spokesperson for Equality Ohio, said the legal recognition of their marriage is “huge” and “brought Ohio couples who are legally married in other states a ray of hope.”
“This is one of the biggest steps that has ever been taken toward marriage equality in Ohio,” Stancliff said. “It is a fantastic ruling for Jim and John. They really deserve the dignity and respect they were shown by Judge Black. Of course, so do the rest of legally married Ohioans.”
And Obergefell has a message for gay couples seeking to marry, but who live in one of the 37 states without marriage equality: Don’t wait another moment to obtain the recognition you seek.
“We deserve it; we’re asking for nothing special,” Obergefell said. “If you have the energy, the will, the desire, if you’re thinking about it, do it. Getting married, in a way, nothing changed, being together 20 years, but, truly, everything changed. It’s impossible to describe, but everything changed getting married.”