The Making of an American Martyr
The orange circle goes into the circular peg. The yellow triangle goes into the triangular peg. This was a game that I, and I am sure most of you, played during the first few years of life as it was instrumental in teaching shapes and colors. Frankly, it was the game that helped me just narrowly pass kindergarten. Unfortunately, the idea that every aspect of life should fit neatly into its intended box has sewn its way into the very fabric that makes up our social interactions. Social norms are created that dictate if you are an orange circle, you better not only fit into the circular peg, but into the circular peg for orange circles. Once in a while, there will be an orange circle or a yellow triangle that bravely stands up for what they believe in and show the world, whether to ridicule or appraise, that they will not be pegged by society. These are the martyrs of change and the foragers of social justice.
In the summer of 1966, one such martyr was born. However, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that an encounter transpired at a bar called Uncle Woody’s that would alter the course of Jim Obergefell’s life. It was at that bar near the University of Cincinnati that Jim Obergefell met John Arthur.
Not long after the first meeting, Jim and John became inseparable. Shortly after dating, the two moved in together. They worked together in IT consulting and client relations management. They lived happy, loving lives together with Jim being the reserved one and John the charismatic one.
Then, in the winter of 2011, Jim noticed John was having issues walking. He began to trip often and had difficulties getting into their car. John saw his family doctor, who referred him to a neurologist.
The diagnosis was devastating: ALS.
By 2013 the progressive disease attacking John’s nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord had worsened. He was no longer able to walk, and speaking was difficult for him. Most normal bodily functions were impossible. However, something else happened in 2013; Something that was once impossible, but now possible that added a bright spot to Jim and John’s life.
In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Defense of Marriage Act. An act signed into law in 1996 by Bill Clinton that defined marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” and a spouse as “a person of the opposite sex who is husband and wife.” This act made it impossible for same-sex couple to get married. But in 2013, the Supreme Court found that defining marriage as between one man and one woman as unconstitutional and that it denies same-sex couples the “equal liberty” guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. This ruling gave same-sex married couples federal benefits in states where such unions were legal.
At the time of the ruling John was essentially on his deathbed, but that wasn’t going to stop them. They were determined to get married. However, they were unable to in their home state of Ohio as same-sex marriage was not yet legal. They would have to fly to the closest state that had legalized it: Maryland.
To do so in John’s condition was a feat no less than a miracle. The couple had an ambulance transport them to the airport, where they boarded a medical jet with a nurse and John’s aunt, who became ordained online to perform weddings. They began the ceremony on the tarmac as soon they landed outside of Baltimore. In the summer of 2013, just a few weeks after the Supreme Court’s ruling, John and Jim were legally married.
The Supreme Court Battle
Three months later, John passed away. This isn’t where the story ends, though. In some respects, it’s where it begins.
After Jim and John became married in Maryland, they were informed by an Ohio civil rights attorney that due to Ohio’s same-sex marriage ban, Jim could not be listed as John’s surviving spouse on his death certificate.
A lawsuit was filed against the state of Ohio. The judge ruled in favor of Jim and John. The state appealed to a higher court and won, reversing the first judge’s ruling. Jim appealed to the Supreme Court, resulting in one of, if not the most influential Supreme Court ruling related to same-sex marriage.
The Supreme Court case focused on two questions: 1) The Marriage Question – The constitutionality for states to discriminate between same-sex and opposite-sex couples in granting marriage licenses, and 2) The Recognition Question – The constitutionality of states recognizing same-sex marriages performed in another state.
The ruling was profound. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment requires all states to license marriages between same-sex couples and to recognize all marriages that were lawfully performed out of state.
Jim and John had prevailed. Same-sex marriage was now legal across the United States. After winning the case, Jim rightfully stated, “It affirms what millions across the country already know to be true in their hearts: our love is equal. The four words etched onto the front of the Supreme Court 'equal justice under law' apply to us, too."
• • •
Rosenwald, Michael (April 6, 2015). "How Jim Obergefell became the face of the Supreme Court gay marriage case". The Washington Post. Retrieved December 10, 2021.
"Same-Sex Marriage Supreme Court Decision, June 26, 2015." In Historic U.S. Events. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2016. Gale In Context: U.S. History (accessed December 10, 2021 https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/BT2359039968/UHIC?u=athe67392&sid=UHIC&xid=397a5ea8.
Ouriel, Andy (June 21, 2018). "Jim Obergefell: Sandusky's 'Pride' and joy". Sandusky Register. Retrieved December 10, 2021.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Obergefell v. Hodges". Encyclopedia Britannica, 19 Jun. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/event/Obergefell-v-Hodges. Accessed 15 December 2021.
“Court Overturns DOMA, Sidesteps Broad Gay Marriage Ruling”. NPR.Org. Retrieved December 15, 2021
Image credit: Ted Eytan