The cramped inside compartment of a just-landed charter jet on the tarmac of a Maryland airport — one groom too weak to sit or stand and straining to form the required words — made for an unlikely setting for the beginning of what is now one of the most famous marriages in the world.
Those trying vows said by Jim Obergefell and his partner John Arthur in 2013 helped set in motion an equally unlikely path to history.
Obergefell’s story is one of the absurdity of geography, anger, love, and the banality and weighty significance of government paperwork. It is also a story of triumph, as a court case involving Obergefell ended with the U.S. Supreme Court declaring last month that marriage is a fundamental right guaranteed to all couples, regardless of gender, under the U.S. Constitution.
When Obergefell comes to Charleston Aug. 1 to lead events during the Charleston Pride Festival as the celebrity grand marshal, he will speak as a new and unlikely activist — the lawsuit, he says, being a rare act of public defiance in his life — who wants to ensure that the same-sex marriage movement now turns to ensuring true equality for the LGBT community.
As for his role in it, Obergefell says he’s not yet sure. “This is really my first chance to sit and be myself and not be busy doing events or other things,” Obergefell, a 49-year-old Cincinnati, Ohio, resident says. “I don’t know what my life will be. I’m not sure what it’s going to look like.”
Obergefell’s partner of more than 20 years, Arthur, was in rapidly degenerating health due to the neurodegenerative disease ALS when the pair decided to get married in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. DOMA had barred the federal government from recognizing marriages approved by individual states, and Obergefell hadn’t wanted to be married under a government that didn’t recognize his marriage.
Obergefell would soon find out that while he could arrange, with much planning and difficulty, to cross state lines on a medical charter to be married at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the DOMA decision did not cure indignity for same-sex couples. Soon after the wedding, Obergefell found out he wouldn’t be listed on Arthur’s death certificate nor would his husband be classified as “married” because Ohio didn’t recognize Maryland’s union.
Arthur died three months after the tarmac wedding.
“Here you have the love of your life who is going to die and you want their last official record to be accurate,” Obergefell says. “It needed to say that he was married, not that he was single. It was purely a matter of dignity and respect. We were productive members of society, we were involved in our city, and we were taxpayers, and it was not right.”
The couple only decided to sue, however, after being approached by a civil rights lawyer who had heard about their situation. The momentum of concerted activism coupled with a legal strategy helped push the case forward.
Aided by social media, Obergefell says personal stories like his — and the ones people found out about their family and friends — moved public opinion at lightning speed.
“Too many people get caught up in that we’re two people of the same sex,” Obergefell says. “Marriage is about commitment; it is about love. It is also a civil institution. No church is required.”
Obergefell says he has not yet reflected specifically on his South Carolina trip — he’s been busy traveling to cities around the country speaking to similar groups. But he says that he has sought to remind people that the fight for equality is not over. He and others are pushing broad anti-discrimination measures at the federal and state levels.
“You can get married on a Saturday and put a photo on your desk and be fired on Monday because you’re gay,” he says.
Jeff Ayers, board chairman of the civil rights advocacy group S.C. Equality, says his group was able to fend off several anti-LGBT pieces of legislation last year in South Carolina’s legislature. S.C. Equality will continue to push for anti-discrimination legislation and a hate crimes bill, which has met successful opposition in the past. It will be a tall order in a conservative legislature that is considering passing legislation to add an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning same sex marriage.
South Carolina is one of only five states that doesn’t have its own law to prosecute hate crimes, a measure that is expected to get much debate when the legislature reconvenes in January in the wake of the recent Charleston massacre at Emanuel AME Church.
Ayers says he is hopeful because South Carolina’s politicians have shown an eagerness to prioritize economic development, particularly in the debate that ended in the state taking down the Confederate battle flag in front of the Statehouse. The flag debate could serve as a template for broad protections for the LGBT community because many of the state’s major corporations have backed protections for their workers, Ayers says.
“The elected officials just did not want to get into a fight with our largest employers in the state,” Ayers says of the flag debate. “(Companies) all have agreed on and says they want non-discrimination laws on the books to protect their workers and protect their workers’ families.”
A spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, which has sponsored trips for Obergefell to speak across the country including the one to Charleston, says his story shows something fundamental about the movement. Public opinion moved because of stories like his, says Stephen Peters, an HRC spokesman.
“Their heartbreaking story resonated because people were able to see firsthand the very real and discriminatory impact that marriage inequality had,” Peters says.
After the same-sex marriage decision, Obergefell says that he was proud he had fought for Arthur’s legacy. But he says that legacy is hardly finished.
“We have more to do,” he says, “more steps to take until we actually live up to the ideals of equality.”
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