G24: Jim Obergefell

Love Wins: Equality for One & All | with Jim Obergefell

Jim Obergefell is the named plaintiff from the landmark United States Supreme Court marriage equality case, Obergefell v. Hodges. Following the decision on June 26th, 2016, Jim embraced a new career as an LGBTQ+ activist and co-authored the book “Love Wins” with pulitzer-prize winning investigative journalist Debbie Cenziper. Merging a love of wine with the fight for equality, Jim also co-founded Equality Vines, the world’s first cause-based wine label, to support organizations devoted to civil rights and equality for all. 

When Jim got to university, he started creaking open that closet door — just before slamming it shut again. It was the beginning of the AIDS crisis, and concern around that was at an all-time high. When he finished University, he became a teacher, and even today public schools are not the most welcoming places for out teachers.

What finally gave him the opportunity to accept himself and be happy about it was his grad school experience. It was an environment that didn’t just accept differences but celebrated them. He really felt like he was accepted for who he was in that program, which gave him the ability to say “I’m gay” and feel good about it.

He never did finish that grad program, though. In his confidence of being out, he met John, the man he would fall in love with and eventually marry. They wanted to start a life together, so they moved back to Cincinnati and bought a house. They wanted to get married, but they agreed that they would only get married if it was legally recognized at a state or federal level.

Many people feel like they can’t change things on their own, that their contribution to a cause couldn’t possibly make a difference. That is how Jim felt for the longest time — until Edie Windsor’s case, United States v. Edie Windsor, in June of 2013. This was the first time in his lifetime where the possibility of their marriage being seen and recognized by the government seemed within reach. When the Windsor decision came out, Jim’s partner John was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Jim asked him then and there if he would marry him, and he said yes.

One of Jim’s friends was on the editorial board of the Cincinnati Enquirer and she asked if she could write an article about them. They had no plans of doing anything other than getting married, and they had no way of anticipating what happened next. Friends of Jim’s were at a party, talking to a civil rights attorney, who then left the party and started doing some research. And he reached out to Jim and John and explained to them that when John dies, Jim’s name would not be on there as his surviving spouse.

On June 26th, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in Jim’s favor. As soon as he heard that they had won, he burst into tears. He could hear and see people around the courtroom sobbing. John had passed away from ALS before this point, and the first thing Jim thought was how he wished he could have been there. Next, he realized, that this was the first time as an out gay man that he felt equal.

As he walked out onto the plaza of the Supreme Court, the air was electric. He made his way down through the crowd, made some statements to the press, and someone handed him a phone. In the midst of the crowd, on speakerphone, President Obama was speaking to him. He doesn’t remember what was said, but luckily it was caught on camera for him to revisit the moment. It was all a blur.

Jim used to think that one person couldn’t make a difference, but now he’s been part of that. One person, or one group of people, can truly change the world. When you see injustice in the world, when you know that something isn’t working right, lean into it. Because you can make a difference.

What Brett asks:

  • [02:53] How were you raised and how did your early family influence you?
  • [06:52] How was your father able to accept you so quickly despite conditioning?
  • [09:00] What was standing in the way for you coming out?
  • [12:17] What did you learn from the AIDS crisis in hindsight, and how does it apply to today?
  • [15:52] Can you elaborate on your experience as a teacher and in grad school?
  • [20:16] Did you go on continuing your career in education?
  • [23:04] Tell us about your relationship with John and how that led to the case.
  • [27:20] What was it that held you back from being an activist from the beginning, and how did you start to get more active?
  • [39:24] What was it like for you to be in this fight?
  • [41:55] What was the greatest challenge in getting to the ultimate decision of the case?
  • [46:34] What was the feeling of winning like?
  • [55:48] With what’s going on in the world, what do you believe we have to do to get to a place of being truly one?
  • [01:00:37] How are you using wine to help fight these fights?

Lessons for intentional living:

  • We always hear as children that one person, or a small group of people can change the world, but not many people actually believe it. Jim believes it because he was part of it. If you ever think you can’t do anything to make the world a better place, you can. When you know something in the world isn’t right you have to lean in because you can change the world.