Jim Obergefell was the main plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide. He will hold a talk and book signing at the Institute for Arts and Humanities at 2 p.m. on Friday.
Online managing editor Danny Nett spoke with him about House Bill 2, the state of LGBTQ rights and Obergefell’s new book, “Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality.”
The Daily Tar Heel: Could you walk me through a little bit of what it was like to become the face of the marriage equality movement?
Jim Obergefell: Um, I mean, I’m still getting used to it. It doesn’t seem real. I know I’m the name and face of a landmark Supreme Court case, but it still doesn’t feel real. It’s just a bizarre situation I find myself in. And a week doesn’t go by that I’m not reminded why John and I decided to file suit.
You know, because people stop me all the time to say thank you, to show me photos, tell me stories, to hug me, to cry. And it’s been an amazing experience to get that gift over and over from strangers on the street. It reminds me that John and I started this fight because we loved each other and we wanted to fight for each other.
So it’s been quite an experience, and just to think about law students for the rest of time having to learn how to pronounce and spell Obergefell makes me chuckle. But it was also a great experience to become a family with the other plaintiffs on the case.
DTH: Speaking of your relationship with the other plaintiffs, can you describe the moment all of you found out the ruling?
JO: There were other plaintiffs in the courtroom, but we weren’t sitting with each other… And when the chief justice said that Justice (Anthony) Kennedy would read the first decision and they said our case number, I kind of startled in my chair and grabbed the hands of the friends on either side of me and just started listening.
And as Justice Kennedy read his decision, my first thought was, “We won.” But as he kept reading, I questioned that, because you know, legal language is not always the clearest. And then I thought again, “Well, we won.” “Well, I’m not really sure.” And then it hit me that we really did win, and I just burst into tears.
You could hear people gasping, you could hear sobs, you could see people crying … And I also realized for the first time in my life as an out gay man, I felt like an equal American.
And, of course, I missed John. I wish he had been there to experience that with me, and I would’ve loved nothing more than to hug and kiss him and say we won, but I couldn’t.
DTH: Is there worry that the ruling will be challenged next year based on who takes the election and Supreme Court appointment?
JO: I mean, there’s definitely that fear. You know, Trump has made it clear that he will do everything he can to appoint judges and to help overturn marriage equality.
But I look at it this way: Everything I’ve been told by every attorney and every constitutional scholar is that the Supreme Court is loath to take away rights they’ve previously granted. So, for me, I cling to that and think, well, I’m not sure the Supreme Court necessarily would do that.
… It worries me more just from the rhetoric and the hateful fight that opponents of equality continue to wage. I won’t say it worries me completely that it would happen — but, you know, never say never.
DTH: The current GOP platform has been called its most anti-LGBTQ platform in history. What do you think that says about where the country is post-marriage equality?
JO: Well, I think it says there is a group of people in the United States who are opposed to equality for the LGBTQ community, and they know they’re losing. They lost marriage equality. All they have to do is look at opinion polls. All they have to do is look at the proliferation of anti-discrimination laws across the country at municipal and state levels. They know they’re losing, and they are scared.
This is their way of continuing the fight and trying to hold onto the past — because that’s all they’re doing. Refusing to move forward, refusing to accept the fact that all Americans are equal. Whether or not they like it, all Americans are equal.
DTH: What do you think is next for LGBTQ rights?
JO: Well there are quite a few things I see as important. One thing, which would have the most wide-ranging, positive impact on our community, would be passage of the Equality Act — to update the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
Will that stop discrimination, will that fix everything, make everything OK? No, but we … need sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to be a protected class.
We have to keep fighting for our transgender siblings. The fact is they can’t live their lives without fearing for their lives — and the opponents of equality, as they realize they’re losing, they have singled out the most vulnerable part of our community to attack now with these ridiculous bathroom bills and other things.
And conversion therapy — we need to end that once and for all, nationwide.
DTH: What are your thoughts on House Bill 2?
JO: HB2, these bathroom bills, these religious refusal bills — it’s nothing more than people using their religion or their version of a religion to single out people they don’t like and try to deny them rights and to punish them for not believing the same religion or the religion in the same way that others do. And it’s shameful.
I mean, there’s nothing that goes further against religious freedom than for these legislators to say, “Well, we need this protection because of our belief, and our belief trumps someone else’s constitutional rights.” That isn’t religious freedom. That’s the antithesis of religious freedom.
HB2 came up because of the continuing change in attitudes and support for the LGBTQ community, marriage equality, and it’s shameful that so many people in our country seem unwilling or incapable of learning from the past … People seem to be so afraid of moving forward and so firmly stuck in the past, it’s disappointing.
DTH: There’s a lot of rhetoric around how the gay rights movement progressed very quickly — which in itself is a little arguable — but what do you think the timeline will be like for trans rights?
JO: That’s hard to say. I think about the LGBTQ rights movement in general — yeah, it hasn’t been that fast. A lot of people will say the modern gay rights movement began in 1965 with Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings in Philadelphia. That’s 51 years; I mean, that isn’t quick…
The trans rights movement — I think in some ways, the great strides the overall community has taken over the past few years is doing nothing but help that. And I think the pushback and the reaction that opponents of equality are having is indicative of changing attitudes across the country. They’re going after the transgender community so strongly because I think they already realize that’s moving in the right direction.
So I don’t really have a great estimate or a great idea of how quickly it’ll happen, but I think it’s gonna be relatively quick. I mean, it’s much more in the public consciousness. So many transgender people are speaking out, coming out, and that’s how we change hearts and minds.
DTH: Would you have ever imagined the U.S. being where it is now when you were a kid, or 20 years ago?
JO: Oh, gosh no. Even when John and I became a couple in ‘92 — even back then, ‘92 through really until the early 2000s, we never, ever thought marriage would be a possibility for us.
We just never thought that would happen in our lifetimes. And it did. So, yeah, I’m stunned really at how much life has changed for me as a gay man in a relatively short span of time.
DTH: How do you feel about the criticisms from within the LGBTQ community that marriage equality was the wrong thing to make the main focus of the movement?
JO: My best answer to this is, when we filed our suit, our attorney in Cincinnati got pushback from national organizations saying this isn’t the right type of lawsuit, this isn’t the right time. And his reply was, “I have plaintiffs who are being harmed. It is absolutely the right lawsuit at the right time.”
So, from my perspective, John and I were married. We learned that his death certificate would erase our marriage from existence, from his last record as a person. That was harm. That was personal, and why would anyone say, “Oh, well, Jim, you shouldn’t have done that because all these other things were happening.” No — we were being harmed, we had a problem, and we took action.
So, you know, we have to take the wins when we get them and don’t second guess them. Don’t say, “Well, it wasn’t the right thing at the right time.” You know what, we had a huge win and a huge step forward. And why on Earth would anyone say that wasn’t the right thing to do?
We’ve got to take our wins when we get them. Every win moves us forward.