LGBTQ+ advocate shares experience, lessons from Supreme Court fight for marriage equality

Jim Obergefell never expected to be a renowned gay rights activist, yet the Supreme Court case that decided in favor of marriage equality bears his name. 

Obergefell came to Geneseo to give a lecture on how he came to be the face of the fight for marriage equality and to tell his side of the story in the MacVittie College Union Ballroom on Nov. 16.

“I think we wanted to bring [Obergefell] here to reach out to students who are interested in marriage equality and politics and communication,” Geneseo Campus Activities Board member sophomore Leah Sherman said. “I think it’s really important to bring different aspects to the campus and really reach out to different groups on-campus who have different interests.”  

Obergefell opened the speech by talking about his early life and how he met his late husband John Arthur. After 21 years in a committed relationship, Arthur developed Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. 

The couple had been living in Cincinnati, Ohio at that time. Gay marriage, however, had been legalized in Maryland, so they traveled there shortly before Arthur’s death to get married. 

“After 20 years together, people ask, ‘does getting married after 20 years really change anything?’” Obergefell said. “It changed everything.”

The basis for the Supreme Court case arose when civil rights lawyer Al Gerhardstein pointed out that the pair’s marriage would not be recognized on Arthur’s death certificate. At Gerhardstein’s urging, Arthur and Obergefell sued the state of Ohio. 

Other plaintiffs eventually joined the case and it made its way to the Supreme Court. This did not happen, however, until after Arthur died on Oct. 22, 2013. The historic decision in favor of marriage equality was announced on June 26, 2015. 

“Would I give it all up to have John back? Absolutely,” Obergefell said. “But I love the fact that I fought for John, we fought for each other, we fought for what’s right, we fought for love and an awful lot of good has come out of it. It’s an amazing legacy for the love of my life.” 

In the time since that decision, Obergefell has become a renowned activist for LGBTQ+ rights.

“I think the most meaningful thing is when young people like you tell me that watching this fight, hearing me, understanding how the actions of people can change the world for the better,” Obergefell said. “I think it’s given them the courage to vote. It’s given them the courage to be themselves.”

After the talk, students waited in line to meet Obergefell, mostly to tell him their stories and how his fight for equality affected them.

“I was extremely impressed … I’m really glad I made the decision to come. It was really moving, and everything he said was very well put and very pointed,” English and education double major sophomore Catie Henzel said. “I was deeply affected by everything that he talked about. I appreciated it a lot.” 

Other students considered Obergefell’s address both inspirational and informative. 

“I am incredibly grateful that we had the opportunity to hear him speak, and I’m glad about the focus he put on the trans community, specifically on trans women of color,” English adolescent education major sophomore Emily Ludwig said. 

Geneseo was lucky to hear Obergefell’s story and will benefit from his wisdom.u