'Accidental activist' Jim Obergefell kicks off 55th MSE Symposium series

Obergefell was the lead plaintiff in the 2015 Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage in the U.S.

Jim Obergefell on stage at Johns Hopkins University; he hols a microphone in his left hand and is wearing a blue checked sports coat and a bowtie

Credit: Howard Korn / For Johns Hopkins University

Self-described accidental activist Jim Obergefell spoke at Johns Hopkins University on Wednesday evening as part of the storied Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium series. Student-run since 1967, the MSE Symposium invites speakers for the free exchange of ideas and to promote the incisive analysis of important issues.

Obergefell was the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that in 2015 legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States. Built on arguments laid out in the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, Obergefell v. Hodges established the right for same-sex couples to marry and required states to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples who married elsewhere. Obergefell's appearance was timely: Not only has the real estate broker been running for office in Ohio since January, but this past summer, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the rights established under Obergefell v. Hodges should be reexamined. In his concurring opinion on the ruling of Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which removed the constitutional right to abortion, Thomas invited his fellow justices to reevaluate the constitutionality of 20th-century cases like Obergefell that were built on arguments under the 14th Amendment.

Obergefell's reluctant journey to activism began with heart-wrenching news: In 2011, his longtime partner John Arthur was diagnosed with ALS, a neurodegenerative disease. They married aboard a medical flight in Maryland in 2013, where same-sex marriage was legal, and remained married just over three months until Arthur's death. But their union was not recognized in Ohio where they lived, and Obergefell could not legally be recognized as Arthur's surviving spouse on his death certificate.

It was an injustice and an insult to his two decades of partnership with Arthur that Obergefell would not tolerate. Still, he didn't see his crusade as radical. "I just stood up for our marriage," he told The Washington Post in 2015. With help from a civil rights attorney, Obergefell filed an injunction to be recognized on Arthur's death certificate. A federal judge ruled in his favor, but the state of Ohio appealed the case. Obergefell's case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, where it joined three other cases presented together in an attempt to overturn what the plaintiffs saw as state-sponsored discrimination.

Now, Obergefell is running to represent Ohio's 89th district in the state's House of Representatives, and is reminding his constituents of the tenacity and determination he showed during his fight for marriage equality. "I don't mind being the underdog," he writes on his campaign website. "I'm not afraid to take on any issue when it's the right thing to do. Doing the right thing is never wrong."

Obergefell opened the 55th MSE Symposium series for the fall semester; additional speakers and dates will be announced in the weeks ahead.