Jim Obergefell was ready for a career change when he got his real estate license in December 2014. The former corporate project manager and IT consultant, who had always “loved real estate,” was happy about becoming an agent with Coldwell Banker West Shell in Cincinnati. But sometimes life upends the best-laid plans. In this case, it happened when Obergefell was transformed into a national civil rights hero almost overnight. He was the lead plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015.
Obergefell met with a large group of his real estate peers in early April for the first time since the marriage equality decision overtook his real estate work — and his life. He was the opening speaker at a half-day continuing education class on fair housing and LGBT issues presented by the Cincinnati Area Board of REALTORS®. His primary role was to offer an understanding of the emotional meaning of the landmark decision by relaying his personal journey to more than 150 attendees.
“I’ve come to see that when you tell your story, that’s how you change hearts and minds,” Obergefell said.
Obergefell says he didn’t want to marry his partner of 20 years, John Arthur, “just to be symbolic. I wanted it to carry legal weight.” But their life together was turned upside down when Arthur was diagnosed with ALS in 2011. When the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act in June 2013, which had denied federal benefits to married gay couples, the two decided it was time to wed. Because marriage was not an option in their home state of Ohio and Arthur’s health was deteriorating rapidly, they traveled to Baltimore Washington International Airport by medical jet a few weeks later and got hitched on the tarmac.
Friends and other supporters who emerged via social media contributed the full $13,000 necessary to hire the plane. “This was the happiest moment of our lives,” Obergefell said.
The couple subsequently sued the state of Ohio in federal court seeking recognition of their marriage on Arthur’s impending death certificate. Arthur didn’t live long enough to see a resolution to the case; he passed away three months after they married.
Indeed, Obergefell himself never anticipated that their lawsuit would eventually reach the Supreme Court after a series of lower court rulings and appeals. After their case was consolidated with those of 28 other marriage equality plaintiffs from four states, the Court ruled 5-4 on June 26, 2015, that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples under the due process and equal protection clauses in the Constitution.
Speaking to REALTOR® Magazine before his remarks to the group, Obergefell explained that he obtained his real estate license in late 2014 after travelling for much of the year after Arthur’s death. “I needed to clear my head,” he said.
He and Arthur had also previously worked together at four different companies doing client relations and project management as well as IT consulting.
“I was always interested in home buying,” he said, noting that he and Arthur bought and sold four homes in Cincinnati during their 20-year relationship. They enjoyed rehabbing, and Obergefell still owns the beach home they bought on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
During his first three months as an agent, Obergefell represented clients in two sales transactions. That was before the media spotlight, speaking engagements, and award ceremonies over took his life. He also served on the Cincinnati board’s Diversity and Housing Initiatives Committee.
Obergefell’s colleague at Coldwell Banker, Julia Wesselkamper, who attended the fair housing class, described Oberfgefell as “a hero in our community. It was so moving to hear him share his story with other REALTORS®.”
His book about the case, Love Wins, is due out in June and 20th Century Fox has secured the rights to make a feature film about Obergefell and his experience. “While my life is completely different now, I’m keeping my license active. You never know when this all may change again,” he added.
Obergefell said that while his current activities are gratifying, his heart reminds him daily of what he’s still missing: “I’d give this all up to have John here with me.”