Last June in Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling granting marriage equality to LGBT couples nationwide. Last week, the named plaintiff in the case, Jim Obergefell, spoke to the Indiana University Maurer School of Law Student Chapter about his status as a civil rights icon and how he unwittingly became the modern face of the fight for LGBT rights.
Obergefell, before a packed auditorium, recounted the events that spurred him to file a federal lawsuit to force the state of Ohio to recognize his marriage to his ailing longtime partner John Arthur. The couple had decided to marry after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Windsor that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages performed in states where such unions were legal. Obergefell told the audience he proposed to Arthur because “that was the first time in our almost 21 years together that suddenly at least one level of our government would say, ‘You exist. We acknowledge you. Your relationship matters.’” The couple famously flew to BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport in Maryland, where same-sex marriage was already legal, and tied the knot on the tarmac in a brief ceremony before immediately flying back to Ohio.
When asked by moderator Steve Sanders, co-counsel on a brief in favor of the Obergefell plaintiffs, whether he foresaw a legal battle for recognition of the marriage in his home state, Obergefell replied, “When we decided to marry, we made that decision solely to get married. We had no plans to do anything else. We simply wanted to live out John’s remaining days as husband and husband.” As the case gained national attention, however, Obergefell realized the case was “a lot bigger than just us.” Nevertheless, following Arthur’s death mere months after their marriage, Obergefell quit his job and spent a year traveling and “running away from life” before reengaging in the movement for LGBT equality.
Consistently humble, Obergefell expressed some guilt about his designation as the lead plaintiff, which was due to the low number of his federal case, and his resulting celebrity. “I felt guilty. I really did, because it isn’t just me. It’s my name and my face that’s out there so much, but I’m not the only one. . . . There are thirty-some plaintiffs in our case,” he said. After the blockbuster decision, though, his attention was refocused on the gravity of the plaintiffs’ achievement. “Wow. We really do matter,” he remembered thinking. He added, “I have the utmost respect for [the legal] profession and the court system.”
Watch the full conversation below.