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The Couple Who Altered the Course of LGBT Rights

The Couple Who Altered the Course of LGBT Rights


In this exclusive excerpt from Love Wins, the new book by Debbie Cenziper and Jim Obergefell, we learn about the day Obergefell and his husband, John Arthur, met the man who would change their lives — and ours.

Soon it would be time for good-bye. His husband was dying, and with a gentle knock on the bedroom door long past midnight, it would come now, quickly. But Jim Obergefell, married for five days, didn't want to think about a funeral, not on this bright July morning when Cincinnati was in the throes of summer and his husband, John, was sitting up in bed because the spasms that coursed from his hips to his toes had mercifully subsided.

John Arthur couldn't wear a wedding ring. The weight of it hurt his fingers. He was naked under an electric blanket because clothing made his skin burn. His voice, what was left of it, had become winded and hoarse, a labored delivery of syllables and sounds that required great concentration and long, shallow breaths. Jim had to bend low to hear him, endlessly struck that a man who'd once had such a deep and lyrical laugh could now produce only a whisper. But for five days, John had pushed out a single, perfect word.


Good night, husband. Good morning, husband. I love you, husband.

Disease had struck suddenly, just after John's forty-fifth birthday two years earlier, when his left foot started dragging as if a ten-pound weight was bearing down on his shoe and everything they knew shifted and splintered. The diagnosis of ALS had been a death sentence: the neurological disorder attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, eventually robbing every muscle in the body of movement, including the diaphragm, which facilitates air flow to the lungs. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis literally suffocates its victims to death.

Jim glanced at John in the bedroom they'd once shared, painted pale yellow and dominated by a hospital bed that compressed and expanded beneath John's weight. Jim had moved to the guest room, but already this morning he had spent several hours in a chair by John's bedside, watching the news on a television set loud enough to overcome the constant whoosh of an oxygen generator that pumped air through a line looping over John's ears and up into his nostrils. The bedroom faced east, and Jim had opened the window blinds so John could feel the sun.

On this day, they were expecting a visitor.

Jim was nervous about meeting a civil rights lawyer who had spent the better part of thirty years suing the City of Cincinnati, but when Al Gerhardstein rapped on the door of their downtown condominium just after two p.m., his smile was benign and his graying sideburns were slightly disheveled, as if he had just come in from a run. He adjusted his wire-rimmed glasses, and when he shook Jim's hand, the embrace was firm and friendly.

Al followed Jim down the length of the hall to the bedroom, where John was propped up on pillows, waiting. Dropping his briefcase to the floor, Al barely glanced at the hulking hospital bed. His younger sister, one of six Gerhardstein siblings, was paralyzed by multiple sclerosis, and on Saturday mornings, Al sipped coffee by her bedside until her caregiver arrived.

He leaned forward and rested a light hand on John's shoulder. And then he said, "Tell me about your wedding."

"Saying 'I thee wed' was the most beautiful moment of my life," Jim said, looking at John, whose frail frame was hidden beneath the blanket, and remembering the lanky, grinning man with a mop of blond hair.


They had spent more than twenty years together in Cincinnati, spread across the hills and low ridges of the Ohio Valley, but had never felt compelled to marry because Ohio had banned same-sex marriage and the federal government didn't recognize the state-sanctioned marriages of gay couples anyway. But three weeks earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had delivered an important win to the gay community, finding that same-sex couples married under state law deserved all the federal benefits that came with it, spanning health care, Social Security, veterans' assistance, housing, taxes. So Jim and John had traveled to Maryland to marry, each mile in a private plane fixed with medical equipment wearing on John's fragile body.

"He suffered," Jim told Al. "It's frustrating and hurtful to know that the person you love went through terrible pain and discomfort just to do something millions of others take for granted."

"I wanted us to be treated the same," John said slowly, each word a struggle. "And I want Jim to be legally taken care of after I die."

Al listened without taking notes. Once, twenty years earlier, when he had been in his early forties juggling three children and a shoestring law practice that operated on contingency, the voters of Cincinnati had changed the city's charter, permanently banning all laws that would protect the gay community from discrimination in areas like housing and employment. To Al, it was an arbitrary and hateful provision, and he sued in federal court. He spent nearly five years working without pay, and when the case was done, he questioned the city, the courts, and the application of law. He thought about shuttering his practice and taking up teaching, moving his family from Cincinnati.

He wasn't sure if he would ever take on another major gay rights case, but then United States v. Windsor on June 26 had struck down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, which for more than fifteen years defined marriage solely as a union between one man and one woman. The law, Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the opinion overturning it, told gay couples "that their Otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition."

Over late nights in a dusty office overlooking a bus stop and the federal courthouse, a poster of Rosa Parks in the lobby and hate mail tacked to a bulletin board in the kitchen, Al studied Ohio's ban on same-sex marriage, passed by a majority of voters in 2004.

He discovered a striking inconsistency.

Love Wins

Excerpted from Love Wins by Debbie Cenziper and Jim Obergefell, HarperCollins Publishers.

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Debbie Cenziper and Jim Obergefell