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Marriage equality plaintiff Jim Obergefell is still fighting for LGBTQ rights

Marriage equality plaintiff Jim Obergefell is still fighting for LGBTQ rights
Jim Obergefell Photo: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Jim Obergefell believes activists are made in the moment.

For him, the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that legalized marriage equality, that moment came while his late husband, John Arthur, was suffering from ALS.

Related: Jim Obergefell tells us about the next big court case over LGBTQ rights in this week’s podcast

In the couple’s home state of Ohio, same-sex marriage wasn’t legal, and they learned that when Arthur died, Obergefell would not be listed as the surviving spouse on his death certificate.

“It was in that moment that we had the opportunity to fight for what we believe in or just walk away,” Obergefell told LGBTQ Nation.

Of course, Obergefell chose to fight, and in doing so, he changed the course of history, as well as the lives of innumerable LGBTQ couples.

Now, almost six years after he won his case, Obergefell said his life is nothing like it used to be. Once a consultant and realtor, he has now dedicated his life to advocacy.

“Activism is now part of who I am,” he said, “I can’t let that go. [I’m now] always involved in fighting for something bigger than I am.”

Obergefell said his approach to activism was a bit scattered for a few years after the Supreme Court’s decision. He spent his time moving between different causes and speaking engagements, and he also founded his own wine label, Equality Vines, in partnership with Matt Grove. The company donates to a variety of organizations for every bottle of wine sold.

Recently, Obergefell decided to focus his efforts. In September 2020, he took a job as the Director of Individual Giving at Family Equality, which has spent more than 40 years fighting for lived and legal equality for LGBTQ families.

“Fighting for LGBTQ families to me seemed like the perfect continuation of the work I started fighting for marriage,” Obergefell said.

Family Equality’s work includes advocating for the foster and adoption rights of LGBTQ parents as well as for equitable laws and policies when it comes to surrogacy and reproductive technologies. The organization also connects LGBTQ people with healthcare providers who can help them build families.

“We’re working to change laws, policies, and attitudes,” said Obergefell, who also hopes to help make the organization a household name.

Despite Obergefell’s years-long fame, he still struggles to grasp that people are interested in what he has to say. He found it surreal, for example, that journalists sought his opinion on the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

When Coney Barrett was first nominated, Obergefell was vocal about his fears that her confirmation would put marriage equality in danger. Now, after talking to many experts, he said his feelings have shifted a bit.

“In the past five and a half years, there have been hundreds of thousands of same-sex marriages,” he said, “So same-sex marriage really has become, in a lot of ways, in a lot places, just marriage. It’s just normal. So I find it hard to believe the Supreme Court would create this enormous mess that would happen if they overturned that ruling.”

He added that the court generally does not like to remove rights it has previously affirmed.

Nevertheless, he warned that there is still much to worry about, namely that in many ways, the LGBTQ community is not actually enjoying fully marriage equality, despite its legality.

“All I have to do is mention Kim Davis, Masterpiece Cakeshop, even Fulton v. Philadelphia. It all comes down to greater society constantly telling us our marriages aren’t the same. So while I don’t think we’ll lose the right to marry, we’re going to see continued chipping away at our ability to enjoy marriage equality.”

While Obergefell’s renown allows him to continue to have great influence, he emphasized that you don’t have to become a Supreme Court plaintiff to make a difference. One of the most important ways individuals can fight for equality, he said, is to vote in every single election, state, local, and national.

“Vote for the people who share your values, who believe that the LGBTQ community deserves to take their rightful place as an equal part of We the People.”

Another radical act, he said, is to speak up and tell your story.

“During the marriage equality case, John’s and my story of love and loss was something everybody could relate to because everybody loves someone and everybody has lost someone they love. Telling stories changes hearts and minds. I never really got that until experiencing it myself.”

To this day, Obergefell said he is stopped on the street for photos and thank you’s. Parents thank him for making it possible for their children to marry those they love. College students thank him for inspiring them to come out.

It never gets old, he said.

“Every time that happens, that one interaction is more than enough thank you for any pain, any challenge I might have gone through during the case.”

Obergefell plans to engage in the fight for equality for the rest of his life.

“I was fortunate enough to be part of a group of more than thirty plaintiffs who helped create a better world for younger generations and to help create a world where they’re growing up with the possibility of things we never thought we could do. To me, that’s the most important thing, just working and fighting to create a better world for the people who come after us.”

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