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Caregiver’s Love Fuels Supreme Court Fight for Marriage Equality

After his husband got sick, Jim Obergefell advocated for the rights of same-sex couples

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Rich-Joseph Facun

​Jim Obergefell

En español

​Jim Obergefell, 55, is the named plaintiff in the 2015 landmark United States Supreme Court marriage equality case Obergefell v. Hodges. The ruling on that case requires states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and declares same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional. Marriage equality became federal law, thereby granting same-sex couples equal recognition under the law.​

Following the court’s historic decision, Obergefell embraced a new career as an LGBTQ activist. But his journey into the national spotlight in the fight for marriage equality began with his deeply intertwined experiences of love, caregiving and loss. This is his story.​​


Jim Obergefell: If it weren’t for taking care of the love of my life, my husband, John Arthur, and knowing of his impending death, we would never have filed a lawsuit in 2013 that would eventually wind its way to the Supreme Court and make same-sex marriage the law of the land in 2015. ​​

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Marriage Equality: A Timeline

  • ​​1970: Michael McConnell and Jack Baker become the first same-sex couple known to apply for a marriage license, in Minneapolis. After being denied the license, they file a lawsuit that goes to the U.S. Supreme Court. ​
  • 1972: In Baker v. Nelson, the Minnesota Supreme Court rules that state law only allows for marriage to heterosexual couples and that this limitation does not violate the U.S. Constitution. In October 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court dismisses an appeal, thereby establishing the precedent against same-sex marriage.​
  • 1996: The Defense of Marriage Act is signed into law by President Bill Clinton. DOMA defines marriage on the federal level as between a man and woman, thereby allowing states to deny marriage to same-sex couples. ​
  • 1999: Vermont becomes the first state to legalize civil unions as a way to provide the same state benefits, civil rights and protection of the law to same-sex couples as to married opposite-sex couples. But because civil unions are not recognized under federal law, couples in civil unions are not entitled to benefits such as their partner’s Social Security or federal employee benefits, among others.​
  • 2013: In a 5–4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional, declaring it “a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.” The striking down of DOMA clears the way for married same-sex couples, in states where same-sex marriage is legal, to receive all federal benefits currently available to married opposite-sex couples. ​
  • 2015: In a landmark 5–4 decision in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court ruling requires all states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and declares same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional. Marriage equality becomes federal law, thereby granting same-sex couples equal recognition under the law.​​

But in my heart, the road to the Supreme Court really began in 2011. I was sitting in our condo’s kitchen and staring at the clock tick away. At any moment, John would be coming home from seeing a third neurologist with a final diagnosis. In January of that year, I noticed his gait sounded weird as he walked around our condo, like one foot was slapping the floor harder than the other. Several months passed. The slapping didn’t go away. I finally convinced him to go to the doctor. He fessed up that he had noticed something was going on. ​​

John finally walked through the door that day. As I hugged him he started to cry. ​​

“Yeah. The third neurologist agrees; it’s ALS,” John said, with a tremble in his voice. John never felt sorry for himself. I only saw him cry once, and it was on that day. ​​

In that instant, we knew our lives had taken a tragic turn. ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis] is a fatal neurological disorder that attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord — you lose every single one of your abilities. It’s a horrible thing to watch anyone, let alone someone you love, suffer through. Our lives together would be much shorter than we deserved. But the diagnosis would also make us stronger; the caregiving would bring us closer. ​​

We made the decision early on that John would not be put in a facility. We agreed that when the time came for hospice, it would be an at-home hospice service. I became John’s caretaker. I watched as he started using a cane, a walker, a manual wheelchair and, finally, a big electric chair that we called the urban assault vehicle. It got to the point that John was completely bedridden. There was nothing he could do for himself. It was never a question of whether I would care for him. I did it out of love. ​​

Saying ‘I do’​​

On June 26, 2013, just over two years after the ALS diagnosis, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA. DOMA denied same-sex couples like us the right to federal marriage benefits and allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages even if they were legally performed in other states. ​​

I looked at John lying in bed as the news came in. “Let’s get married,” I said.​​

“Yes,” he said.​​

I had been with John for over 20 years. In our hearts and minds we were married; our family and friends felt that way, too. But after John’s ALS diagnosis and as his health failed, we wanted to make it official.​​

This would require flying from our home in Ohio to Maryland, the only state where we could legally get married that required only one person to apply in person for the license. By this point it was difficult, sometimes painful, for John to even hold my hand. Friends and family donated funds so that we could fly on a medical plane, the only way John could make the trip, due to his illness. On July 11, 2013, we exchanged vows inside the plane on the airport tarmac. Saying “I do” was the happiest moment of our life together.​​

After the trip back home, we soon learned that Ohio would refuse to recognize our union and that John’s death certificate would describe him as single. It was finding out about the death certificate that really broke our hearts. To know that John’s last record as a person would be wrong and that the existence of our marriage would be denied. To learn that after all we were going through that my name would not be listed as his surviving spouse. Not only that, but due to his mother’s family’s cemetery-plot restrictions, I would not be allowed to be buried next to John when the time came, because it was only for direct descendants and their spouses. ​​

I wanted to call myself John’s widower, just like we wanted to call each other husband. I had the right to say, “I’m John’s widower” and have that mean something legally. If what we had and what we were living through wasn’t a marriage, then what was? It made us angry, and that’s what we focused on, because John deserved to die with dignity, and the state of Ohio was refusing John’s dignity, our dignity as a lawfully married couple. We knew that on the federal level, we existed as a married couple and perhaps — if we were in different circumstances — I would say, “Maybe sometime down the road Ohio will catch up and we will exist in the eyes of our state.” ​​

But it was John’s impending death that really got us to launch the lawsuit that would make its way to the Supreme Court. ​​


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A legacy of love​

My husband, John, died on Oct. 22, 2013. ​​

After his death I continued fighting for him. The road to take Obergefell v. Hodges to the Supreme Court would require partnering with more than 50 lawyers and plaintiffs in three other states. I had to keep going, for John, for other LGBTQ couples. When the Sixth Circuit Court ruled against us, a year after John passed, I could have said, “Ugh, I’m done. I’m going back to being anonymous Jim.” But there was no way I could do that. If I didn’t file an appeal, I was failing John. I was failing to live up to my promises, and there was no way I was going to do that. I lost John, but there was no way I was willing to lose the existence of our marriage.​​

I still speak to John every day. ​​

He wasn’t alive to learn of our Supreme Court victory on June 26, 2015. I know he would have cried tears of joy along with me and that celebratory crowd. That day was the first time as an out gay man that I felt like an equal American. I believe John would be surprised and thrilled to see all the progress we’ve made on LGBTQ rights as a nation. But I know he would also be terrified of how at risk we are in this country of going backward in time, of the people who target others just because we are different, of those who want to take back our hard-fought-for rights. ​​

We are a part of this nation. We simply want the right to exist under the law. We deserve to be considered equal Americans. ​​

OBERGEFELL ET AL. v. HODGES, Excerpt from the Supreme Court Opinion​​

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. ​​

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed. ​​

It is so ordered.

José Queirós is a U.S. diplomat and criminologist who has worked in issue areas including international human rights, domestic violence and the historical criminalization of the LGBTQ community. ​​

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