Jim Obergefell’s decision to team up with Cincinnati lawyer Al Gerhardstein in 2013 was precipitated by a very personal concern: his husband’s death certificate—that of the man he’d spent more than 20 years with, the man whose body had been ravaged by ALS, the man who had just weeks or months left to live—would be a lie. Because Ohio refused to recognize same-sex marriages, even those performed legally in states that had opened up the institution, John Arthur would be listed as single on his last legal record. The place where the surviving spouse’s name is normally recorded would be left blank.
“John and I were never activists,” Obergefell, who is now the co-author of Love Wins, a book about the Supreme Court case named after him, explains. “When we decided to get married, we knew Ohio wasn't going to recognize it, but that was an abstract thing. The moment all of that changed was when Al pulled out that blank death certificate and showed me what John’s would look like. That's when it became real. That's when it became hurtful.”
When Obergefell decided to sue the state of Ohio, he was fighting for the right to have his husband’s death certificate reflect their life together. It was the moment he became, in his words, an “accidental activist.” He knew that success would help chip away at the discrimination enshrined in his state’s constitution, but as his case rose higher and higher within the judicial system, as it closed in on the Supreme Court, it was clear that there was something greater at stake.
When the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld bans on same-sex marriage and its recognition in Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, and Tennessee, it broke rank with all the other Circuit Courts that had heard such cases before. With this conflict, the way was paved for the Supreme Court to take up the issue, which it agreed to do in late 2014, combining appeals from all four states into one case: Obergefell v. Hodges. After decades of progress and setbacks, the Supreme Court would finally wade into the fray, and that meant there was the possibility that the issue of marriage equality would be settled for good.
“I was following Jim and John's case in the newspaper, just like many, many other people were,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Debbie Cenziper says. “I had kind of a distant family connection to John Arthur, and then through John to Jim….Even before the Supreme Court heard oral arguments, I took an unpaid leave of absence from the Washington Post to write this book. We didn’t know which way the Supreme Court would go, and we didn’t really care—I mean, we cared, but I was so moved by their story. I just wanted to tell it.”
For Obergefell, the fact that Cenziper had known Arthur made all the difference. “John and I both—we're the kind of the people that once you're family, you're always part of the family, no matter really what happens. So to have that base level of comfort and familiarity with her, and then add in the fact that she's a Pulitzer Prize winner—it felt like a perfect storm. I'd have been an idiot to have said no.”
From the beginning, both Obergefell and Cenziper were on the same page, in that they knew this story had to be about more than just one couple and their lawyer. “Throughout the entire process,” Obergefell says, “I knew it was never just about me. It was about all of us plaintiffs and about everyone who came before us. And, you know, part of me—well all of me—thinks that I'm just not interesting enough for a book to be about me. So we had to include other plaintiffs and Al and other attorneys. They were all part of this story.”
Of course, that made things far more difficult for Cenziper, who now had to catch up on years’ worth of information about more than 30 plaintiffs, their lawyers, and their families. It was a lot, “but in such a good way,” Cenziper maintains, “because this was really a book about love.”
When the Supreme Court decided on June 26, 2015 that the Constitution granted the right of marriage to same-sex couples, the task became even more daunting. Not only did publishers want the book out within a year, to mark the one-year anniversary, but Jim, who had in many ways become the face of the movement, was now in high demand across the country. “Over hours and hours and hours,” Cenziper says, “Jim and I just talked, sometimes in person but mostly by phone, to piece together the chronology and the history of it all.”
Obergefell and Cenziper didn’t set out to write a book about activism or about politics. They wanted to tell a human story, a story about family. In the end, it’s a story of incredible breadth and insight showing how, as Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, “marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.”
“Our story resonates with people,” Jim says softly. “Everybody loses someone they love. Everybody can relate to that. Our story—it’s not a political thing. It's about love. It's about family. And my experience has been that it has changed hearts and minds. This process,” he adds, taking a pause, “I’ve realized that I'm very small, and I’m fighting for something that's bigger than I am, more important than I am. One person, a group of people, can actually do something that impacts the world, that makes our world a better place, and I never thought that was true. We all hear that as kids, and I discovered that it really can happen.”
James McDonald is a British-trained historian and a New York–based writer.
Photo of Debbie Cenziper courtesy of Al Peasley and Jim Obergefell courtesy of Emma Parker Photography.