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Obergefell to discuss marriage equality, personal journey at Ohio State

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Jim Obergefell, the named plaintiff in the historic marriage equality case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court last week, rides as a guest of honor in the San Francisco Pride Celebration and Parade on Sunday, June 28, 2015. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Jim Obergefell, the named plaintiff in the historic marriage equality case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court last week, rides as a guest of honor in the San Francisco Pride Celebration and Parade on June 28, 2015. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Jim Obergefell, whose landmark case legalized gay marriage in this country, will share his story with Ohio State students on Thursday.

Students can attend the event and celebrate LGBTQ history month with Obergefell in the U.S. Bank Conference Theater at the Ohio Union on Thursday 7–9 p.m.

The native Ohioan was the lead plaintiff in Obergefell v. Hodges, which was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in June. The 5-4 decision gave same-sex couples the right to marry as guaranteed by the due-process and equal-protection clauses of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The case changed the lives of millions of LGBTQ Americans this year, said Angie Wellman, intercultural specialist of the LGBTQ Student Initiatives at Multicultural Center.

“Everyone can relate to love for and commitment to the ones we care about,” Obergefell said. “Putting ourselves in the public eye wasn’t a decision we took lightly, but we realized it was a moment when we could take a stand and fight for what we believe in.”

Obergefell said he believes his talk at OSU will have a special meaning for him, as well as people in Ohio.

“People often say, ‘As Ohio goes, so goes the country,’ and it’s gratifying to see that plays out in the context of marriage equality,” he said. “I’ve experienced nothing but support from around our state, and it’s clear to me how much my fellow Ohioans appreciate the risk that John and I took by standing up to fight for our rights.”

Obergefell said that it’s important for him to spend time and share experiences with students to enhance an open, supportive environment for the LGBTQ community at OSU and all colleges.

“Colleges and universities are vital to our future as a people and a country,” he said.

Obergefell said he remembered all the fear, uncertainty and self-loathing he felt as a closeted gay man at the University of Cincinnati and the joy of discovering an open, supportive environment at Bowling Green State University.

“My graduate school experience at BGSU gave me the strength to finally accept who I am and, for the first time in my life, be truly happy,” Obergefell said. “Our young people deserve that kind of environment.”

Obergefell was born in Ohio and has lived almost his entire life here. Ohio is where he filed the lawsuit, Obergefell v. Kasich, in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio’s Western Division at Cincinnati on July 19, 2013, because his state of residence would not recognize their out-of-state union.

Obergefell said that he is proud to be a Buckeye and that he feels humbled that he was able to fight for Ohioans and his principles.

In 2013, Obergefell and John Arthur got married to obtain legal recognition of their relationship, even though Arthur had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a fatal neurological disease that paralyzes the body and confines him to his bed. They married in Maryland, one of the few states that allowed same-sex couples to marry after the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act.

The couple wanted the Ohio Registrar to identify Obergefell as Arthur’s surviving spouse on his death certificate based on their marriage in Maryland, but the state refused and defended Ohio’s same-sex marriage ban.

Obergefell said that the abstract knowledge that their marriage would not be recognized by the state of Ohio suddenly became very real when their civil-rights attorney brought up the issue of Arthur’s death certificate.

Arthur died in October of 2013.

“We were hurt,” Obergefell said. “It’s heart-breaking to realize that a state law would deny your husband the dignity of having his last official record as a person be correct, and to learn that the state would disregard our lawful marriage and my status as his surviving spouse on that document.”

When SCOTUS announced its decision that same-sex marriage is a right guaranteed by the Constitution nationwide, Obergefell said he was thrilled. He said he won not only respect and dignity, but also relief from the fear that Ohio would erase their lawful marriage and once again make Arthur and him legal strangers.

“From the start of our fight, I had no doubt that we were doing the right thing, and the support I received from around the country proved that America was on our side,” Obergefell said. “I lived up to my commitments to love, honor and protect John, and I can think of nothing else more important than that.”

Obergefell said he has had the great opportunity to share their story with people across the country after the case ended, and that he has learned how important stories are for changing perceptions and building community over the past several years.

“People stop me to thank me, tell me stories or to simply hug me,” he said. “Every single interaction brings me joy and reinforces how ready our country was to live up to the four words above the front door of the Supreme Court: equal justice under law.”

Obergefell said he has experienced first-hand an amazing change in attitudes toward the LGBTQ community, as a person who has lived in Cincinnati for 31 years.

At one time, Cincinnati was considered the most gay-unfriendly place in the country because of an early-1990s city charter amendment that banned laws protecting the LGBTQ community, but the Cincinnati of today bears little in common with its past concerning its relation to the LGBTQ community, Obergefell said.

“Cincinnati is not alone, and similar changes in attitude, policies and laws have occurred throughout the state of Ohio,” he said. “Ohio has changed for the better, and I believe those positive changes will continue for years to come.”

Obergefell said that the whole country has taken a step toward the promise of equality enshrined in the Constitution with the ruling and made the U.S. a better place.

“For the first time, our relationships exist no matter what state we call home,” he said.

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