February 13, 2017
How Love Won: Behind the Landmark Marriage Equality Decision
School of Media and Public Affairs / George Washington University
February 13, 2017
“An ‘Accidental Activist’ remembered in history for his role in Marriage Equality”
When DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) was ousted by the Supreme Court in 2013, Jim Obergefell decided to marry his partner John Arthur. They had been together for 21 years with no real thought of marriage. John was dying of ALS .but they could not be married in the state of Ohio, so Jim hired a medical jet to fly them to Baltimore where they were married on the tarmac. When they returned home, and John died shortly thereafter, with no right to have his marriage on his death certificate, Jim was outraged… and decided to take action. He had never expected to be involved in a Supreme Court case – but he needed to act on his promise to John. He needed to fight. He became an ‘accidental activist.’
Douglas Hallward-Driemeier, the lawyer who defended and crafted the narrative for the case, Oberfegell v Hodges, based his argument on three prior cases: Loving v VA in the 1960s about interracial marriage; Lawrence v TX about sodomy; and the U.S. v Windsor case in 2013, which struck down part of the DOMA decision. The argument he used was that marriage is fundamental to our lives and many people were being denied the opportunity to marry their loved one based on their sexual orientation. The people denied marriage equality belonged to a ‘suspect classification,’ based on sexual orientation.
Obergefell has often been asked what it was like to be at the Supreme Court on the day of the decision. There is way to tell which cases will be presented on which days, so Jim had to guess when to appear. He went several times in June 2015, with no luck. Then, one day, he suddenly learned that the case would be brought before the Court on Friday, June 26, and the ticket was lavender! He was there with the 30+ other plaintiffs.
When Justice Kennedy read the decision, Obergefell could not believe his ears and was not sure that the decision was positive. When he realized the decision had gone their way, with the Supreme Court legalizing same sex marriage in all 50 states, he cried and said he finally felt proud as an out gay man to be American!
Justice Kennedy read out the 5-4 decision, stating that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage: “No longer may this liberty be denied. No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideal of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family.” He called marriage a ‘keystone of our social order.’
Many attribute the success of the case to social media: four states had already rejected anti-gay legislation based on public sentiment (MD, ME, MI, WA). Also. businesses found the old laws hindering to their work: 370 companies protested a situation where they could not send a married gay couple to a state without legal gay marriage and have their rights respected.
Debbie Cenziper, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and professor at GWU, decided to write a book on the case, titled How Love Won: Behind the Landmark Marriage Equality Decision, when she realized that Jim’s married partner could not have stated on his death certificate in Ohio that he was married. She tells the story in the book of ‘ordinary people who did the extraordinary’ and co-authored it with Obergefell. She wants the book to change hearts and minds. (Note: the film rights have already been sold and a script is being written.)
What will happen in the future under the Trump Administration? It appears thus far that President Trump may not challenge this decision. It is considered a ‘settled law’. As time goes by, this will be considered more and more ‘facts on the ground’ from which it is hard to go back.
 The SMPA has offered journalism classes since 1938 and established the world’s first political communication major in 1982.