Ohio man, deceased husband: The faces of the marriage equality movement

In this July 11, 2013 file photo, Jim Obergefell, left and John Arthur, right, are married by officiant Paulette Roberts, in a plane on the tarmac at Baltimore/Washington International Airport in Glen Burnie, Md.

In this July 11, 2013 file photo, Jim Obergefell, left and John Arthur, right, are married by officiant Paulette Roberts, in a plane on the tarmac at Baltimore/Washington International Airport in Glen Burnie, Md. Glenn Hartong, The Cincinnati Enquirer (AP)

In this July 11, 2013 file photo, Jim Obergefell, left and John Arthur, right, are married by officiant Paulette Roberts, in a plane on the tarmac at Baltimore/Washington International Airport in Glen Burnie, Md. Glenn Hartong, The Cincinnati Enquirer (AP)

In this July 11, 2013 file photo, Jim Obergefell, left and John Arthur, right, are married by officiant Paulette Roberts, in a plane on the tarmac at Baltimore/Washington International Airport in Glen Burnie, Md.

CINCINNATI — Jim Obergefell hadn’t thought about becoming one of the most visible figures in the marriage-equality movement. He just wanted to marry the love of his life for 21 years.

Obergefell remembers watching the news on TV with John Arthur after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013. “I just leaned over, hugged and kissed John, and said, ‘Let’s get married,'” he recalls.

It was complicated, both because he and John lived in Ohio, where voters banned same-sex marriage in 2004, and because Arthur was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

But within weeks, they were on a medically equipped plane to Maryland, where Arthur’s aunt officiated at a ceremony carried out as he lay on a gurney inside the plane on the tarmac.

“That was our plan, just to get married,” Obergefell said.

On their return home, friends told their story to veteran Cincinnati civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein, and helped connect them. He explained that the death certificate in Ohio wouldn’t list Obergefell as Arthur’s surviving spouse.

“Hearing that was heartbreaking news,” Obergefell said. “Purely the meanness of it. … The state where you lived and built a life together would completely disregard our legal marriage. How on earth does that harm the state of Ohio or the people of Ohio?”

The couple went to court and won a temporary injunction against enforcement of the state’s ban a few days later.

Arthur died a little over three months after they were married. Obergefell was listed as spouse on his death certificate.

But his legal victory was overturned by a federal appeals court.

He’s also run into problems with matters such as surviving spouse benefits. And there’s uncertainty about his ability to be memorialized in a family plot that Arthur’s grandparents set aside for married spouses and direct descendants.

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Obergefell, now 48 and selling real estate in Cincinnati, was in the courtroom for the appeals court arguments last August. He plans to be at the Supreme Court on April 28 as the lead plaintiff in a case that could extend the right to same-sex marriage nationwide.

Before all of this, Obergefell hadn’t been much involved in politics.

“No one could ever accuse us of being activists,” he said, smiling. “We just lived our lives. We were just John and Jim.”

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