Obergefell and Hodges: The Accidental Opponents

Bob Vitale
Jim Obergefell talks on the phone to President Obama on the steps of the Supreme Court following the marriage equality decision in 2015.

Their names are forever linked—divided, actually—in legal annals, law-school texts and history books. Without context, they’re Obergefell v. Hodges, the plaintiff and the defendant, the gay widower and the state official on opposite sides of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case out of Ohio that expanded marriage rights in 2015.

With context, the versus disappears, and they’re Obergefell and Hodges, two kindly men with Northwest Ohio roots who became friends after the dust settled. Since their introduction in 2016, Jim Obergefell and Rick Hodges have stayed in touch and spoken together about the case that bears their names.

It turns out that Hodges, the former director of the Ohio Department of Health who was sued because the Ohio Constitution barred his agency from acknowledging same-sex married couples, was a supporter of marriage equality all along. He represented the tiny town of Archbold in the Ohio House during the 1990s, and he now lives in Columbus and works at Ohio University. Obergefell, who grew up in Sandusky and lived in Cincinnati with his late husband, John Arthur, moved to Columbus earlier this year.

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“You asked me once whether I was nervous to meet you,” Hodges tells Obergefell over coffee on a late-summer morning in Clintonville. “I was like, ‘No, I get to meet a rock star. I’m going to meet Mick Jagger, the Mick Jagger of the civil rights movement. I’m into this.’”

It’s a surprising bond, given most encounters between people on opposite sides of such issues. Protesters with “Burn in Hell” signs, after all, are as much a part of Columbus Pride as rainbow flags and glitter.

Equality Ohio executive director Alana Jochum recalls the reaction earlier this year when donors learned Obergefell and Hodges would speak alongside each other at a fundraiser for the LGBTQ advocacy group. “Some of them were like, ‘What are you doing? Are you giving us fireworks?’ Afterward, people were in tears. It’s such a beautiful thing, their friendship. To me, it represents the healing that’s possible.”

In the coffee shop, Hodges is glad to hear he was wrong to assume Obergefell, the name and face of such monumental change, faced great hostility. “It’s been thousands upon thousands of positive experiences,” Obergefell says. “People stopping me, talking to me, sharing photos, hugging me, crying, you name it.”

Obergefell, in turn, laughs when Hodges recalls a confrontation he thought he was about to have a few years ago when someone rolled down a car window and yelled “Homophobe!” as Hodges walked through Downtown. It turned out to be a smart-aleck friend who knew his whole story.

“My faith perspective is: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul; love your neighbor as yourself,’” Hodges says, paraphrasing Mark 12:28–31. “That’s the one commandment that matters. Everything else is theology.”

Days after the Supreme Court ruling, Hodges read the same verse at the Columbus wedding of Jeff Gatwood and Steve George, a fellow Kasich administration official and friend of nearly three decades. Hodges didn’t get into scripture or politics when a reporter asked him about the irony of attending a wedding made possible by a case he just lost. “I love my friend,” was all he said at the time.

Doug Preisse, a Republican lobbyist and chairman of the Franklin County GOP executive committee, says Hodges has always had a deeper side to his “small-town conservative, Northwest Ohio guy” persona. Preisse, who is gay, introduced Hodges to Jochum, who set up the first meeting between the two former litigants.

As an ally, Hodges was influenced by the same forces that shaped LGBTQ people coming of age in the 1980s. “I had friends who were gay who didn’t tell me, or anyone else for that matter, until they were HIV-positive,” he says. “They couldn’t share it until they basically got a death sentence, which it was at the time. It was like, ‘You were safe with me. You’re my friend. It’s part of who you are.’”

Obergefell came out as gay while attending grad school at Bowling Green State University. Months later, he met John Arthur while visiting friends in Cincinnati. They were together nearly 21 years and legally married just three months, after a ceremony aboard a chartered medical jet at an airport in Maryland, where gay marriage was already legal. Then they returned home, where Arthur passed away from ALS in October 2013 as their case for recognition in Ohio was moving through the courts.

When he was inducted last year into the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame, Obergefell said he and Arthur were accidental activists who simply fell in love and decided to fight for their marriage to be respected by the state of Ohio. Hodges says he and Obergefell were accidental opponents. Obergefell and Arthur originally sued Kasich and then-Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, whose names were replaced by a succession of Ohio Department of Health directors. Hodges became the lead defendant after Kasich appointed him to the job in 2014.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers requested swapping defendants, though Obergefell says he always felt Hodges ended up as the fall guy.

“I was,” Hodges agrees. He says he considered quitting—“Well, I have two kids, so I’m not sure that was actually going to happen”—but decided to let the courts do their thing while he focused on his job. Obergefell attended every court proceeding in Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., but Hodges took part in none. Instead, he told leaders of an LGBTQ employee group at the Department of Health that he didn’t want anyone to feel they weren’t valued. He made sure his agency was ready to treat everyone equally should the court rule in favor of marriage equality.

On the day of the ruling, Obergefell took a congratulatory call from President Obama. Hodges took a call from someone he doesn’t remember who told him about some obscure rule that could get the case reconsidered. The caller asked if he’d go along with the idea. “I said, ‘No I’ve had enough.’”

Today, Hodges is happy that the decision is referred to in shorthand simply as Obergefell.

“That’s really the way it should be,” he says. “That’s the way I want it to be.”


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