Jim Obergefell, from landmark Supreme Court case, speaks at UI IMU

Obergefell spoke on his personal experiences with his husband John Arthur, and what inspired him to take on the U.S. Supreme Court in the fight for marriage equality.


Avi Lapchick

American civil rights activist Jim Obergefell delivers a speech at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City, Iowa on Tuesday, Feb. 28th.

Jami Martin-Trainor, Assistant Digital Editor

For Jim Obergefell and John Arthur, it was love at third sight. 

Obergefell, the plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court that legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States, spoke at the University of Iowa on Tuesday at the Iowa Memorial Union. Obergefell was invited by the UI Lecture Committee, an organization dedicated to bringing influential guest speakers to campus. 

During his lecture, Obergefell said his journey to becoming the name of marriage equality started with his husband, Arthur. Obergefell said Arthur changed his life and is one of the reasons he was adamant about fighting for marriage equality.

Obergefell met Arthur three times before they became a couple. During their first meeting, Obergefell was still closeted. He was out by the second time they met and hinted that he wanted Arthur to ask him out, which did not happen. The third time they met was during a New Year’s party, and despite Arthur’s attempts to talk Obergefell out of it, the two ended up dating. 

After being together for several years, Arthur was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, in 2012. The disease spread quickly, and after a few months, Obergefell and Arthur were discussing marriage. 

“If you don’t know much about ALS, it’s a death sentence,” Obergefell said. “Now I could have said, ‘John, I can’t do this. I can’t care for you at home,’ but there was no way I could do that. When you love somebody, you take care of them, no matter what.”

Obergefell and Arthur decided to get married in Maryland despite the fact the two lived in Ohio. Because of the progression of Arthur’s ALS, Obergefell said Maryland’s regulations pertaining to the marriage certification were the most accommodating. 

“From my perspective, it changed everything,” Obergefell said. “It gave us the happiest moment of our lives together, and we felt different. We felt better. We felt more complete. That was all we wanted to do.”

Mere days after their coupling, a civil rights lawyer in Cincinnati informed them that their marriage was invalid in Ohio.

This conversation sparked several court cases to arise, which eventually led to the ultimate decision of Obergefell v. Hodges, which officially legalized same-sex marriage on the federal level.

While at the Supreme Court, Obergefell said he had a conversation with an evangelical Republican regarding the case. Obergefell said the man entirely changed his opinion on same-sex marriage after listening to the hearing.

“To me, this was such a perfect example of the power of stories,” Obergefell said. “Stories change hearts and minds.”

Obergefell’s invitation to Iowa was an intentional choice made by the UI Lecture Committee. Benton Renaud, a junior at the UI, is a general member of the organization. Renaud was contacted by a speaking agency that the committee previously worked with, and Obergefell was on the list of featured speakers. 

Renaud said Obergefell’s story still has salience today, especially in areas where anti-LGBTQ+ is actively being harmed by systems in power. 

“It’s still very topical, considering some of the legislation that is going through in the state of Iowa and across the country that is really affecting LGBTQ+ individuals in many ways,” Renaud said. 

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Despite the Supreme Court precedent that was set by Obergefell v. Hodges, there still is an element of concern as to whether or not that will remain in place. 

“The overturning of Roe v. Wade was still very fresh in many people’s minds, and it was a really big question if same-sex marriage going to be next,” Renaud said. “I thought it’d be a very topical speaker to bring in.”

These fears regarding the safety of same-sex marriage were warranted. Tuesday morning, the Iowa Legislature introduced two bills —House File 508 and House Joint Resolution 8 — that would supersede federal law and ban gay marriage in the state of Iowa. 

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While there has been recent backpedaling regarding LGBTQ+ legislation, Obergefell said he remembers the people whose lives he has changed to stay positive.

“I think about that young woman who told me that marriage equality saved her life,” Obergefell said.” I think about the kids who have come up to me, I think about the younger generations and honestly, that’s what gives me the most hope.”