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Marriage equality icon toasts Sonoma


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.”

Along with co-author Debbie Cenziper, a Pulitzer-prize winner and longtime friend, Obergefell wrote “Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality ” which tells the complete story of his life and Arthur’s, going back to their childhoods and their coming out to their families and their time together, as well as the court battles. Obergefell said the book is doing well, especially at independent bookstores and airports.

The movie rights to the story have been sold and directors are now considering the screenplay. “We are waiting for the right director to say ‘Yes, I want to do this and I am available,’” he said. Who might play his role in the movie? He loved the suggestion of Jonathan Groff.

Gay Wine Weekend is put on by Out in the Vineyard, an event and travel company that markets to the LGBT community, owned by Gary Saperstein and Mark Vogler. They started Gay Wine Weekend in 2011, and they say it has grown every year since. Last year attendees came from 16 states and Australia.

Saperstein said most of the wine tasting and tours sold out earlier than ever, and they added more. There are still tickets available for the weekend’s biggest event, the Twilight T-Dance, which drew almost 700 last year, and the Sunday Brunch, the proceeds of which go to Face to Face, a Sonoma County AIDS network.

“People ask us why do you have gay events, and we tell them that until we have complete equality we need to have gay events,” Saperstein said. He is delighted that Obergefell will be attending, and said that his involvement came about as a result of Equality Wines sponsoring the brunch.

Obergefell is the co-founder of Equality Wines, which donates 20 percent of its proceeds to organizations that “fight for equality for all” including the Human Rights Campaign and Face to Face. Equality will be opening a tasting room in Guerneville, possibly this weekend if a permit glitch is solved in time.

One of Equality’s wines is Love Wins Cuvee, named in honor of the Supreme Court decision and Obergefell’s book. “John and I loved to drink anything with bubbles,” Obergefell added. Created by winemaker Joy Sterling of Iron Horse Vineyards, Obergefell was on hand to lend his tasting opinion while Sterling made the pinot noir and chardonnay blend sparkling wine.

Obergefell said he is new to the “wine world” and that this will be his third trip here. He has liked Sonoma so much so far, that moving here is not out of the question. “I really enjoyed it and I found myself thinking, ‘Hmm, could I see myself to Sonoma?’”

Not so long ago he could never imagine a life different than the wonderful one he shared with John in Cincinnati. Now, four years later, he’s living in D.C. and would consider another move.

After 20 years with the love of his life, would he ever marry again?

“Well, absolutely!” he said. “I fought for the right to marry. And John told me again and again, in the last year of his life, that he wanted to me to find love again. He didn’t want me to be alone, and I would be a really bad husband if I didn’t consider something he specifically asked me to do.”

So far that hasn’t happened, no one special has come along. But anything can happen at Gay Wine Weekend – in Sonoma.