JObergefell did not want to become famous. Obergefell says that he has always been shy, and the one at the corners of parties, asking when he can leave.
That changed in 2015 when the entire world heard his name, as he was named the plaintiff in the historic U.S. Supreme Court Case. Obergefell v. HodgesThe United States has a basic right to wed.
Obergefell now worries that the right to an abortion could be under threat seven years later. A Supreme Court draft opinion leaked in May showed the high court poised to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion established in 1973’s Roe v. Wade. Justice Samuel Alito wrote a draft opinion that said the decision wouldn’t necessarily have an impact. Obergefell, advocates worry its logic that “the Constitution makes no reference to abortion” and that access to an abortion is not a right “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” could be applied to overturn other rights such as same-sex marriage or interracial marriage.
The once-reticent Obergefell—now running as a Democrat for the Ohio house of representatives—says he feels a responsibility to use his profile to be vocal, visible, and to raise awareness about the rising threat he sees. “Anything I can do to help people understand how fragile our rights are right now, I will do,” he says.
The anniversary of Obergefell v. Hodges on June 26, TIME spoke with Obergefell about the legacy of his lawsuit, the rise of anti-LGBTQ legislation, and why he’s running for political office.
The following interview was edited for clarity.
TIME: Are you concerned that your lawsuit’s precedent could be put at risk by the Supreme Court draft opinion leaked in May?
Obergefell: I am definitely concerned. The language in that draft decision clearly lays the groundwork that opponents of marriage equality—and in my opinion, opponents of all civil rights progress we’ve made in this country—can use to challenge that progress.
Justice Alito used the same language as his dissent to address marriage equality. ObergefellThis leaked decision is Dobbs. So I see this as the court teeing up, saying: ‘Here’s some language you can use if you’re opposed to marriage equality, you have friends on the court—and we will hear it if something should make it our way.’
Which actions do you believe progressives should take in order to respond?
Focusing at the state-level is what I believe we should do right now. And that also applies to a woman’s right to control the decisions made about her body. It is important to look at the state, as we are aware that the Supreme Court will not be our friend when it comes to some of these matters.
This means reaching out to your state legislatures and expressing what you believe. Then, work at the state level to implement those legal steps. Make sure you are loud. These rights should be supported by everyone. Make it clear to everyone that the Supreme Court can take away any rights. This puts all rights at stake.
Are you sure that most Americans are aware of the danger you describe?
I don’t think so. Over the past couple of decades people have said, ‘the right to abortion, the right to control your own body, we’re not going to lose that.’ People got… the only word I can come up with is complacent. These rights were a part of daily life for many. They thought they could never be removed.
This complacency and the belief in these rights as safe must be overcome. Because in my opinion, they’re not.
Where? ObergefellWas the 2015 ruling a decision? Do you feel the precedent it established could be under attack in the future?
There is a possibility that ObergefellI didn’t think that was possible. But I will say that, even from June 2015, we’ve never really enjoyed marriage equality in this nation. Yes, marriage equality is possible in all 50 States. All 50 must also recognize the marriages of citizens from other states. Kim Davis was the ex-County Clerk of Kentucky who forbade marriage licensing to homosexual couples. Obergefell came down. Judges and magistrates all over the country have stopped officiating any weddings that are for identical-sex couples. There are bakeries, photographers and invitation printers. However, they refuse to cater to same-sex couples who get married. So we don’t enjoy marriage equality. That was something I understood from the beginning.
Are you still seeing the LGBTQ rights movement in the same place that it was seven years ago, when the high courts ruled in your favor.
Yes, and no. Yes, because we had the decision in 2020’s Bostock v. Clayton CountyThe Civil Rights Act is a law that protects many employees from being discriminated against on the grounds of their sexual orientation, gender identity. Back in 2015, I know I wasn’t thinking that we would have a decision like that.
Other decisions haven’t gone our way. 2021 was the year. Fulton v. Philadelphia, which ruled the city of Philadelphia can’t refuse to work with a faith-based foster agency because it won’t certify same-sex couples. Even though the ruling was narrow, it had the same effect as allowing an publicly funded child welfare agency to refuse to work alongside LGBTQ persons.
And then there’s what’s happening to the transgender community. I think after losing their fight to prevent marriage equality, opponents of LGBTQ rights realized, ‘Okay, well let’s find a new target. Let’s go after the most vulnerable in the community that we can find.’ And that happens to be our transgender community. These are the horrible, cruel, and mean-spirited laws that have been proposed and adopted across the nation.
So there’s been progress, but we are facing increased amounts of hate in society, on the streets, in our classrooms.
What motivated you to run for Ohio’s house of representatives in the first place?
After the elections, my thoughts turned to running for office. Obergefell decision, when an out House member in Pennsylvania said, ‘Jim, people are going to start mentioning public service to you. Please, do me a favor. Don’t just immediately say no.’
He was correct. People started to say, ‘Jim, you should run for office. I would vote for you.’ I was hearing that over and over and over again. But I never really found myself in a spot where I said, ‘Okay, this is the time and place for me to do that.’
Moving back home to Sandusky, Ohio in the last year has made a big difference. I was able to return to my roots. Many public servants seem to have lost sight of their role as public servants. They’re not doing things that make life better for anyone. They’re not focused on jobs and opportunities. They’re not focused on health care. They’re not focused on education. Many public servants are too focused on their egos and their pockets than they are the education of our children.
My fight for equality in marriage changed my life. It is my goal to continue being active and making the world a better place. And when someone suggested, ‘Jim, would you think about running to represent this area in the Ohio house of representatives?’ I realized I was finally in the place and time I could seriously consider it. The combination of the time I had, the changes in my life, my beliefs, and the desire to do the right things made it possible. I thought about it and said, ‘Yeah, now’s the time.’
The Ohio State House is currently controlled by Republicans 64 to 35. What are your goals for office?
At the moment, there are not many out members of the Ohio statehouse. Even if the things I support—like the Ohio Fairness Act that would create statewide nondiscrimination protections for the LGBTQ+ community, which I would join as a co-sponsor—even if they go nowhere, in my opinion I’m still being successful and effective because I will at least be a voice for the LGBTQ+ community, and all marginalized communities, at the table in Columbus.
Your message to the young LGBTQ population across the nation, who might be concerned about the possibility of losing their right to an identical-sex marriage?
She is a friend of a friend and has a gay teenage son. When Justice Amy Coney Barrett was elected to the Supreme Court, her son began to weep at the idea of losing equality in marriage. He turned to his mom and said, ‘Mom, is that going to be taken away from me before I even have the chance to marry someone I love?’ His mom contacted me and shared this story, and I sent him a message. It is also the message that I sent to any young people who may have read it.
You are allowed to feel afraid. In fact, if you are afraid, that means you’re paying attention. But just know I won’t stop. I won’t stop speaking out. I won’t stop protesting, I won’t stop doing everything in my power to make sure you have the right to marry the person you love. It’s not just me. There are countless people like me who are out there fighting for this, and we’re not going to let it go. Although I may not be your friend, I fight for you. I’m fighting for every queer kid out there, so that they can grow up in a world better than the one I grew up in.
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