Gay Activist Jim Obergefell: Love, Loss and Steadfast Commitment Lead a Nation Forward

“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone … ”

I first heard the poem “Funeral Blues” by W.H. Auden in the movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” during the scene in which Matthew eulogizes his partner Gareth. I was struck by the depiction of them, because they were a “regular” couple who happened to be gay, much like my partner John and I. Until then, I hadn’t related to many gay movie characters, but Matthew and Gareth were different, because they seemed so much like us. That scene, and the words of this poem, stayed with me because the thought of losing John, like Matthew lost Gareth, scared me. I understood the widower’s wish for everything to stop, for there to be no noise, for the world to mourn.

That fear became reality in 2013, when John died of ALS, a progressive disease that leads to paralysis and death. I lost my husband, the love of my life, or, as Auden says, “my North, my South, my East and West.” After more than 20 years together, I had to adjust to a new life as a widower, and find my way without the man I loved, the man perfectly described by a friend as “the kite to my anchor.” I never expected to become the kite, anchored by my love for and commitments to John, but that’s exactly what has happened. That transformation would have never occurred but for a decision John and I made shortly after we married on an airport tarmac in Baltimore, three months before he died.

Marco Grob for Variety

We decided to stand up for our marriage and to no longer accept being treated as second-class citizens. We filed suit against the state of Ohio to demand recognition of our lawful, out-of-state marriage on John’s impending death certificate. Our decision, motivated by pain and anger, created a chain of results I never expected. The obvious result of that decision is my trip to the United States Supreme Court as the named plaintiff in Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark case about the right to marry throughout our country.

What I didn’t expect on my way to that courtroom was to discover how much our story and our fight resonated with people across the country. People stop me to say thanks, to tell me their story, to talk about a loved one, to offer condolences, or to simply hug me. One young man told me our story gave him the courage to come out. An evangelical Republican shook my hand and thanked me. A mother told me, on the day her daughter came out to her, that hearing me speak made them both cry and gave them hope. Two friends told me that my fight for the commitments I made to my husband changed their opinions on marriage equality. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth thank me for helping create a world in which they feel safer, more hopeful, and more valued.

Jim Obergefell, right, with husband John Arthur, who died in 2013. Obergefell still wears his wedding ring.

The love I’ve experienced, for John and from the people I’ve met, has proven some of Auden’s words wrong. Auden wrote: “I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.” Although John is gone, our love will always be in my heart, in the hearts of our family and friends, and in the hearts of people across the country who have been affected by our story. Before this experience fighting for our marriage and our rights, I agreed with Auden. Now I know better; our love will last forever, because we were willing to fight for it.

Some have called me a hero; I’m not comfortable with that term, and I doubt I ever will be. But I can now accept it from others because I see what this fight means to them. My brand of activism used to consist of asking, “Where do I sign the check?” But I’ve now discovered an internal activist willing to publicly fight for a cause, an activist willing to give up his private life to demand justice, an activist willing to become one of the faces of a civil rights movement. It’s reassuring to learn that what I was told as a child is true: One person — or two people, in our case — really can change the world.

Auden ends his poem with “For nothing now can ever come to any good.” This was his reality, but my story is proof that he’s wrong. I lost the kite to my anchor, but now I fly, because I’m forever anchored by my love for John and the commitments we made to each other. The love I have for him is worth fighting for, and I do and I will, to the Supreme Court and beyond. If that isn’t a marriage, I don’t know what is.

It’s reassuring to learn that one person — or two people, in our case — really can change the world” – Jim Obergefell. Photo by Melissa Golden for Variety

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