LGBTQ South Florida

Couple’s tragic love story led to same-sex marriage throughout U.S.

Jim Obergefell marries John Arthur aboard a private medical jet on a tarmac at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on July 11, 2013. John’s aunt, Paulette Roberts, performed the ceremony.
Jim Obergefell marries John Arthur aboard a private medical jet on a tarmac at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on July 11, 2013. John’s aunt, Paulette Roberts, performed the ceremony.

Former Miami Herald reporter Debbie Cenziper says the road to writing her new book, Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality, began in Miami the day after she won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize.

“I got a call from a literary agent in New York City who said, ‘You really should write a book.’ I’ve always wanted to write a book, but it took eight years for me to find a subject I wanted to write about,” says Cenziper, who won her Pulitzer for uncovering waste, favoritism and lack of oversight at a Miami housing agency. “I’m a busy investigative reporter and I never really found the right topic, a story that just moved me. Then, like so many others, I read about this case. It moved me.”

The case — which resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court declaring one year ago that same-sex couples nationwide had the same rights to marriage as opposite sex couples — happened to involve distant relatives of Cenziper’s first husband: Jim Obergefell, who fought the state of Ohio to recognize his Maryland marriage to dying husband John Arthur.

“I met them 25 years ago, actually, at my wedding to my first husband,” Cenziper recalls. “John Arthur and my first husband were first cousins. I saw them off and on through the years, but we didn’t have a close relationship. They lived in Cincinnati and we lived in Miami and other places. And so I was really just following the story and in March of last year, 2015, I decided I really wanted to write about it.”

Cenziper asked for a break from her current job at the Washington Post. “The story moved me in a way that I had to do what I did. I took a book leave and started researching, not just about Jim and John and their story, but about all the other plaintiffs and lawyers who were behind this case.”

The Supreme Court case, known as Obergefell v. Hodges, was actually a consolidation of six different cases from Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee involving dozens of plaintiffs — male and female couples and LGBT parents who were not permitted to be recognized on their children’s birth certificates.

Cenziper said she felt their pain: “I am a parent, but I had never heard that some states denied married same-sex couples accurate birth certificates for their children. I just couldn’t believe it. One parent was recognized by the state but the other was deemed a legal stranger.”

Of all the plaintiffs in the case, Obergefell became the best known. He and Arthur, partners for about 21 years, got married July 11, 2013, weeks after elderly widow Edith Windsor won her Supreme Court tax case forcing the federal government to recognize legally married same-sex couples.

Obergefell, who shares Love Wins author credit with Cenziper, describes his wedding to Arthur:

“John was dying of ALS. He was bedridden and had at-home hospice care, so our options were to put him in the back of an ambulance and drive hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of miles, which I wasn’t willing to do because it would have been entirely too painful for him. That meant flying, but he could not fly commercially, so we had to charter a medical jet in order to fly. We settled on Maryland, but the only way to get anywhere we wanted to go was by chartered medical jet,” Obergefell tells the Miami Herald.

They flew from Ohio to Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and never exited the jet.

“We were on the ground in BWI at most 40 minutes, but that was landing, taxiing, parking, getting settled, waiting for the Cincinnati Enquirer reporter — who took photos — to join us. The ceremony was seven or eight minutes at most. And then a little bit of time before we took off again,” Obergefell says.

On the flight home, the newlyweds celebrated. “I love you was said an awful lot. “We were thrilled, so happy, we could do this,” Obergefell says. “We were lucky and we used the word ‘husband’ over and over and over and over again.”

Then came the legal fight. Cincinnati civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein, a primary figure in Love Wins, represented Obergefell and Arthur against the state of Ohio, which refused to recognize their marriage.

“And 11 days after we got married, on July 22, 2013, we won. The judge ruled in our favor,” Obergefell says. “That ruling said the state of Ohio, when John died, had to complete his death certificate accurately, which meant it had to recognize our marriage, list John as married and me as the surviving spouse. The judge issued a temporary restraining order forcing the state to fill it out correctly. A temporary restraining order cannot be appealed.”

Arthur died Oct. 22, 2013. “And in December of 2013, the judge made that temporary injunction a permanent injunction,” Obergefell says. “At that point, the state of Ohio appealed.”

The conservative Sixth District Court of Appeals eventually overturned the federal judge. For LGBT advocates, that was the tipping point —the first federal appeals court to not strike down state same-sex marriage bans. (The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals never ruled in Florida’s federal marriage case, in which U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle voided the Sunshine State’s gay ban as unconstitutional. Same-sex marriage became legal in Florida on Jan. 5, 2015.)

The Sixth District’s 2-1 decision led the Obergefell case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which on June 26, 2015, ordered that all states allow and recognize same-sex marriages.

Cenziper was in the courtroom as the 5-4 decision was revealed.

“I sat behind the plaintiffs I had come to know,” she says. “This is the ending of the book. Inside the hushed Supreme Court building, everybody is happy and crying, and through the doors of the courthouse, you could literally hear the roar of the crowds outside.

“In a quiet corner of the courthouse after the decision was read, Al Gerhardstein and Jim embraced, then they walked out through the side doors and the light poured in. The crowds literally parted for the plaintiffs and the lawyers as they left the Supreme Court. It was an unbelievable moment.”

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