John Arthur told a friend that she didn’t know how to talk to guys. So he was going to take her out and show her how it’s done.
“That guy likes you,” she told him later about the friend of some friends – Jim, his name was – who had come down to Cincinnati from Bowling Green to spend part of the holidays.
“Nah,” Arthur told her.
“We were together 20 years and 10 months,” Jim Obergefell says, sitting at the dining table of the couple’s condo in Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine neighborhood. Obergefell just tried watching the video of their July 2013 wedding, but he couldn’t get past John’s first words to the camera.
It’s too soon after his husband’s passing, from ALS, last October. And John Arthur, at age 48, passed too soon.
Just two years earlier everything was fine, until they both noticed he had been walking a little differently.
Arthur saw the doctor in June 2011. By June 2013, he was bedridden.
It was June 26, 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court nullified a portion of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and ordered the federal government to recognize all unions performed in marriage equality states.
“We were so not gay activists,” Obergefell says. Like many couples, they once decided they didn’t need government sanction for their relationship, but marriage suddenly carried more meaning after the ruling.
They had the should-we discussion and decided they should. They didn’t set out for a fight.
Obergefell and Arthur flew from Cincinnati to Baltimore on July 11, 2013, on a medical transport plane, spent 56 minutes on the ground, were married in a 7½-minute ceremony in the plane’s cabin, and flew back home as federally recognized spouses.
Friends and family had been asked via Facebook for ideas and connections to make the trip happen, and they responded instead with donations that covered the $12,700 cost of the plane.
Crossroads Hospice, which gives its patients the gift of a perfect day, arranged the ambulance ride to the airport. The Cincinnati Enquirer documented the couple’s wedding with a story and video that ran three days later, on July 14.
“I think it was a good thing for both of us,” Obergefell says of what came next. “It gave us both something to fight for.”
The fight started when a mutual friend put them in touch with Cincinnati attorney Al Gerhardstein. Gerhardstein knew that the men, now considered legally wed in the federal government’s eyes, would be separated again soon in the eyes of Ohio.
The Supreme Court decision required the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages performed in Maryland and other marriage-equality states, but it didn’t force Ohio to allow or even recognize a gay couple’s legal union.
John Arthur, who was able to witness history and marry the love of his life during his last months, would be listed as unmarried when the Ohio Department of Health had to issue his death certificate.
“They had already accepted what was happening, and they were prepared,” Gerhardstein said of Arthur’s terminal illness. But they weren’t ready to accept being told that the marriage Arthur said made him feel like a full citizen would be wiped off the record of his life.
“We had no plans, no thoughts, no idea whatsoever,” Obergefell said about challenging Ohio’s 2004 constitutional amendment that restricts marriage to opposite-sex couples only.
In The Cincinnati Enquirer video, he said: “It doesn’t matter to us what Ohio says at this point, because we know that isn’t going to change.”
Now it’s changing in Ohio and all around the country, in no small part because of the lawsuit filed on July 19, 2013, in the US District Court for Southern Ohio.
Obergefell and Arthur sued – and won the right – to have Arthur recorded as married and Obergefell recorded as his surviving spouse on the state-issued death certificate. Theirs was the first post-DOMA lawsuit to challenge any part of a state’s marriage ban. The case has been cited repeatedly in the past year as federal judges have rescinded restrictions and demanded recognition of same-sex marriages in state after state.
In Cincinnati, U.S. District Judge Timothy Black issued a temporary restraining order against the state three days later, extended it in August and applied it in December to all death certificates issued by the state for married, gay residents.
Gerhardstein, who represented same-sex couples in a later suit that orders Ohio to recognize all same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, said he was prepared for a long, slow march toward marriage equality.
After two wins in five months, a third federal suit filed by Gerhardstein’s law partner on behalf of Ohio couples seeks total revocation of the state’s marriage ban.
“He said, ‘You realize this will all be on you,’” Obergefell says, recalling a conversation with his husband as they were discussing whether to take on a fight for their rights.
Arthur got to see the couple’s first court victories before his death on Oct. 22. And in addition to the ensuing legal victories for all Ohioans and the precedent set for gay and lesbian Americans nationwide, the lawsuit gave Arthur and Obergefell something else to focus on during Arthur’s final months.
They received more than 300 cards from around the world wishing them well. Friends with whom they had lost touch found them once again. Arthur would get a laugh when news accounts referred to him and his husband as gay activists.
But the activism felt good, Obergefell said.
“So much of our world was out of our control. It gave us both something to fight for. It felt good to push back.”
A federal appeals court will hear Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s appeal of the couple’s legal victory on Aug. 6.
Obergefell feels proud every time he sees a new federal court decision from a new state where a marriage ban has been struck down and equality has been declared the law of the land.
“It means I’m protecting our relationship, our marriage, and I want to do it for everyone else,” he says. “I look at it now and I think, what a great legacy for John.