The UC Love Story That Led to a Landmark Law

Written by Susan Helmick, Graduate Assistant for the Graduate College 

equality flags wave in front of u.s. supreme court

University of Cincinnati alumni and couple Jim Obergefell (Class of ’90) and John Arthur (Class of ’88) shared a love story like many others: they met while both in graduate school, fell in love, and after two decades together decided to get married. Unlike other couples, however, they faced a significant obstacle as same-sex marriage was banned in Ohio at the time, setting in motion a journey for marriage equality that would change the course of LGBTQ+ history and play a pivotal role in legalizing same-sex marriage in the United States.

In recognition of LGBTQ+ History Month and ahead of National Coming Out Day on October 11, we are shining a light on these UC LGBTQ pioneers whose unwavering commitment to equality and one another ignited a movement that transformed the legal landscape for same-sex couples across the United States.

A Diagnosis and a Decision

In 2013, following John Arthur’s diagnosis with the progressive and terminal neurodegenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Jim and John decided to marry but could not legally do so in their home state of Ohio. Instead, they chartered a medical transport plane to fly to Maryland, where same-sex marriage was legal and exchanged vows on the tarmac. Upon returning to Ohio and with the final stages of John’s illness taking hold, the newlyweds were determined to have their marriage recognized on John's death certificate. Jim filed a lawsuit challenging Ohio’s marriage law, beginning a legal dispute that would eventually make history. The case progressed through the lower courts until finally on April 28, 2015, after being consolidated with similar cases from other states, Obergefell v. Hodges was heard by the United States Supreme Court. Two months later, the Court pronounced judgment. 

On June 26, 2015, in a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court found in favor of marriage equality, marking a historic moment in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights in America. This landmark ruling meant not only that same-sex couples across the nation could legally marry and have their marriages recognized in all 50 states, but it also played a pivotal role in accelerating attitudes toward supporting LGBTQ+ rights.

An Enduring Legacy 

Just months after marrying on October 22, 2013, John Arthur lost his fight with ALS. Two years later, in 2015, Cincinnati’s city council honored John’s memory by proclaiming April 28, the day oral arguments began in Obergefell v. Hodges, as John Arthur Day.  

Jim Obergefell has continued the fight for LGBTQ+ rights as a speaker, activist, and advocate. In 2016, he was honored with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s Everyday Freedom Hero award, presented to those who embody the ideals of the Underground Railroad - to pursue inclusive freedom by promoting social justice for all. In 2017, he co-authored the book ‘Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality’. He also co-founded Equality Vines, a California-based cause-minded winery that helps fund equality-focused movements and organizations. 

John and Jim’s story is a powerful reminder that love can elicit profound and lasting change and transform the future. Their determination to marry resulted in one of the most significant national civil rights wins of recent times. They were first so others could be next - true representatives of the UC “Next Lives Here” philosophy; and we can’t wait to see how UC graduates continue to make history.