The one-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage is fast approaching, and the lead plaintiff in the litigation responsible for the decision said he still sees the joy it brought to LGBT people everywhere.
Jim Obergefell was lead plaintiff in the Obergefell v. Hodges decision handed down on June 26, 2015, which he recognized in an interview this week with the Washington Blade for its lasting impact.
“I think for the LGBTQ community, it was such a momentous step forward and the thing that I have loved over the past year is just how much joy I see in people’s faces when they talk about having gotten married, or they talk about people they care about or love who’ve gotten married,” Obergefell said. “And I just see more optimism within the LGBTQ community.”
But at the same time, Obergefell said the year that followed the ruling yielded backlash, recalling efforts by state legislatures to pass “religious freedom” laws to undermine the decision and Republican presidential candidates railing against it.
“We all expected that there would be some pushback to the ruling; I just don’t think any of us ever expected it to be as vicious as it is,” Obergefell said. “And that’s been incredibly disappointing and disheartening to realize just how much hatred is still out there in our country directed toward our community. So, it’s been a year of absolute celebration and love tempered with just the re-emergence of hatred, and the fact that our transgender community has been targeted so terribly. It’s really just disheartening and sad.”
Obergefell’s story has become well known. As his partner John Arthur was battling Lou Gehrig’s disease, the couple flew from Ohio to Maryland and married on the tarmac at BWI Airport before immediately returning home. When the couple discovered Ohio wouldn’t recognize Obergefell as a spouse on Arthur’s death certificate, they filed a federal lawsuit seeking recognition of their marriage. Arthur died before the Supreme Court decision upholding recognition of the couple’s marriage was handed down.
On June 26, 2015, U.S. Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy read from the bench at the U.S. Supreme Court the decision affirming Obergefell’s marriage and guaranteeing the right of same-sex couples to marry throughout the country.
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family,” Kennedy wrote. “In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.”
With great detail, Obergefell recalled how he came to discover the decision at the Supreme Court. Through the month of June, he said he was in D.C. each day at the courthouse so he could be present when justices delivered the decision in the marriage case.
On Monday during the week of June 22, he remembered the court added June 26 as a decision day, which he said made him think the marriage ruling would happen that Friday as opposed to the next week as he earlier predicted.
“I was in D.C. and got to the courthouse early that morning and took my place in line and from the moment I got there that morning, things were different,” Obergefell said. “The attitude of everyone around the courthouse seemed lighter, seemed more optimistic than previous days.”
When police officers started handing out tickets to enter the courtroom, Obergefell noticed something different from the time of oral arguments and earlier decision days. Instead of being bright orange as they had been in the past, the tickets were lavender, which he took as a positive sign.
After the entering the courtroom, Obergefell recalled nearly jumping out of his seat when, after the buzzer rang, Chief Justice John Roberts announced Kennedy would read the decision in the marriage case.
“I was sitting between two friends, and I grabbed both of their hands and just started squeezing and listened to Justice Kennedy,” Obergefell said. “And as he was reading the first sentence or so, I thought we won, then a little bit more, I thought I think we won but I’m not sure, and then it sunk it then we actually had won, and I just burst into tears and so many other people around the courtroom were. You could hear it, you could see it, and it was just this beautiful moment of feeling more like an America, more equal, more part of our country.”
Attempting to join along with his attorney and fellow plaintiffs the celebration outside the Supreme Court, Obergefell recalled trying to get out of the main entrance, but being blocked by police, who said they couldn’t leave there because the crowd outside pushed past the barrier in celebration. Instead, they exited from a side door and crossed to the front of the building.
“As we were walking, the crowd parted like the Red Sea,” Obergefell said. “It’s the only thing I can come up with to explain what it was like. But the crowd just parted and walking through the crowd and seeing the tears and the smiles and hearing the cheers. It was such an amazing experience to feel the incredible sense of joy on that plaza.”
It was a whirlwind day for Obergefell, as he spoke to onlookers at the Supreme Court, then received a phone call from President Obama and conducted interviews with the media before heading to Reagan National Airport to catch a flight to Ohio.
But that evening, Obergefell said his experience was different from that of many same-sex couples celebrating everywhere and, in D.C., having their photos taken outside the rainbow-lit White House.
“I spent my decision day sitting in the airport because my flight was delayed, delayed, delayed and finally cancelled about 1 a.m.,” Obergefell said. “I wasn’t able to really take part in the celebrations that were going on that night. When I meet people, so many times I hear stories about how they were just out having fun, celebrating, popping bottles of Champagne that evening, and all I can think of was I was sitting in Reagan airport. It wasn’t quite that fun.”
Despite the cancelled flight, Obergefell made it back to Ohio the next day for a parade in his honor in which he said he toured downtown Cincinnati “crying the entire way, being home and just seeing that incredible sense of joy on the faces of everyone who passed.”
As the Obama administration comes to a close, Obergefell said he “absolutely” thinks the decision will be part of President Obama’s legacy even though — similar to Hillary Clinton — he didn’t support marriage equality until recent years.
“I always look at this way: When we decide to come out, we hope that our family and friends are supportive, and we hope that they immediately say that, ‘You know what. We just want you to be happy. I’m good with this,'” Obergefell said. “That’s what we hope for. And it doesn’t always happen, but by coming out and letting people know us, truly know us, they change their minds. That’s what happened with Hillary Clinton, that’s what happened with President Obama.”
With June 26 the anniversary of the marriage decision as well as the anniversary of the 2013 decision against the Defense of Marriage Act and the 2003 decision of Lawrence v. Texas, Obergefell said he supports the idea of making that date known as Equality Day.
“It’s hard not to think the day should be marked in some way because…three vitally important rulings for LGBTQ equality on that day, so I think it would be great to have June 26 known as Equality Day,” Obergefell said.
Currently, Obergefell is on a tour to promote “Love Wins,” a book he co-wrote with Washington Post reporter Debbie Cenziper about the marriage case. On June 15, Obergefell will appear at an event at the Smithsonian to promote the book the day after its release.
Obergefell is also politically active and has endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, raising fears about the prospect of President Donald Trump.
“He hasn’t been as overly critical of us or overly offensive toward our community, but he has made it clear that he supports taking our right to marry away,” Obergefell said. “So, he would not be good for us, and unfortunately the GOP in general isn’t incredibly supportive of our community either — so personally he isn’t and the party isn’t, so it would be a sad day, in my opinion — if a Republican took the White House because then they have the ability to nominate judges to the Supreme Court. It scares me.”
The next big thing for the LGBT movement, Obergefell said, should be the Equality Act because the comprehensive non-discrimination legislation would be “the most impactful thing” for the LGBT community.
“If the November election would go in an incredibly positive way for the Democratic Party and we have a Democrat in the White House and more Democrats in Congress, I could see that happen fairly quickly, but it really comes down to how the election in November goes,” Obergefell said.
Jay Brown, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said Obergefell’s activism in the year after the marriage ruling has had significant impact.
“Jim’s voice was and continues to be incredibly powerful,” Brown said. “Like so many of the plaintiffs, Jim’s story embodies everything a marriage should ever be. And since the historic ruling, he’s not stopped speaking out, having crisscrossed the country over the last year speaking up for LGBTQ youth, opposing attacks against transgender people and working to create a world where we are all treated with the basic dignity every human being deserves.”
But Obergefell doesn’t think the Supreme Court is done with LGBT rights and predicted justices would rule on whether transgender people are able to use the restroom consistent with their gender identity. Just this week, a Virginia school district filed before the Supreme Court a petition seeking to overturn a ruling requiring a transgender student to access the school restroom consistent with his gender identity.
“Much like with the marriage case, we went to the courts to say we deserve the same rights, the same protections, the same responsibilities as other couples,” Obergefell said. “I think the same is going to happen for our transgender community, and I think it will eventually end up in the Supreme Court.”
Nearly a year after the ruling in favor of same-sex couples marrying, Obergefell said for a transgender case he’d “expect the same thing” from the court in terms of a decision extending equality throughout the country.