Jim Obergefell, the man whose name is indelibly attached to marriage equality, is in Sonoma now for Gay Wine Weekend, the annual summertime wine country retreat staged by Out in the Vineyards. Obergefell is the named plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 decision on “Obergefell v. Hodges” that made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.
Obergefell will be attending the Twilight T-Dance at Chateau St. Jean Winery on Saturday night and is the guest speaker at a brunch on Sunday. He will also be promoting Equality Wines and signing his book, “Love Wins.”
In a phone interview this week with the I-T, Obergefell said he looks forward to a day when the term “gay marriage” is a thing of the past, and marriage is just marriage.
“Marriage equality has become part of our culture and the world hasn’t come to end,” said Obergefell, 51. “People have gotten married and nothing has happened other than people have gotten married.”
In other words, as he said following the Supreme Court decision two years ago, “Our love is equal. Equal justice under the law applies to us.”
Obergefell and his late-husband John Arthur had been a committed couple for 20 years. When Arthur was terminally ill, suffering from ALS, they decided they wanted to marry, which at the time was illegal in their home state of Ohio. Their wedding took place on July 11, 2013 in Maryland on airport tarmac, where they had flown in a medical jet, paid for by their supportive relatives and friends. Before Arthur’s death three months later, they learned Ohio would not recognize their marriage and allow Obergefell’s name as Arthur’s spouse on the death certificate. And that started the winning fight that ended in marriage equality.
Since the Supreme Court decision, Obergefell’s life has “changed completely.” Previously his career included corporate training, information technology and real estate, but now his life is dedicated to equal rights activism. He speaks at universities, human rights events and fundraisers -- and travels almost constantly. He has also moved from his lifelong home of Ohio to Washington, D.C.
“It took me 30-something years to find my career passion, and I’ve finally found it,” he said. His audiences want to hear his story – how the great love of Jim and John led to marriage equality for all. They are also interested in his opinion on whether marriage equality is threatened in the future.
“I try to concentrate on what people smarter than me have said, attorneys and experts in the law, and they have said ‘Don’t worry,’” he said. “And traditionally the Supreme Court is loathe to take away rights that it has previously granted.”
It is still “surreal” to him that so many people know who he is. “It feels very strange to me when people call me a hero or call me brave because I don’t feel that way. I never wanted to be someone that people would recognize,” Obergefell said. “But when people come up to me and tell me their story and show me photos, about what the decision means to them and someone they love, it is a beautiful thing every time it happens.”
And there is one thing in particular that moves him. “When I speak at universities I’ve had students come up to me afterward and say, ‘After hearing your story you’ve given me the courage to come out.’ And I consider that a gift.”