Jim Obergefell, Lead Plaintiff in Landmark Same-Sex Marriage Case, to Address APA
Note: This article was originally published in Psychiatric News.
“I want you to know that if it wasn’t for that case, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Jim Obergefell—lead plaintiff in the landmark 2015 Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges that established the right of same sex marriage—recalled those words from a young woman who approached him after an address he delivered at the University of Tennessee.
“I can’t even put into words how meaningful that was to me, that this Supreme Court case prevented her from committing suicide,” Obergerfell said in an interview with Psychiatric News. “It just exemplifies how the decision and everything that led up to it have made life better for LGBTQ+ people.”
He will receive the John Fryer 50th Anniversary Speech Award on Tuesday at 8 a.m. at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. This special event, titled “Special APA CEO Breakfast Session: John Fryer 50th Anniversary Speech Award Celebration,” will commemorate the appearance of psychiatrist John Fryer, M.D., in disguise at the 1972 APA Annual Meeting to announce that he was gay. The event was a catalyst that led the following year to the removal of homosexuality from DSM. (The anniversary speech award is separate from the annual John Fryer Award Lecture, which will be delivered by Kenneth Ashley, M.D., at 1:30 p.m. in Room 296.)
“It was simultaneously overwhelmingly scary, and something we knew was right,” Obergefell said of his involvement in one of the most high-profile legal battles in decades. “Everything I have been through has been worth it, and if I ever have a down day, I just remember that young woman and what the case meant to her.”
“It is a great honor to recognize Jim Obergefell on the 50th anniversary of John Fryer’s act of courage in 1972,” said APA CEO and Medical Director Saul Levin, M.D., M.P.A. “This special event celebrates two great landmark events in securing the civil rights of gay people and two individuals who are heroes of that movement—John Fryer, M.D., and Jim Obergefell. I urge everyone to attend this event.”
In 2013, Obergefell and his partner John Arthur married in the state of Maryland after United States v. Windsor struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal recognition of same-sex marriage. When their home state of Ohio refused to recognize their out-of-state marriage, they filed suit in the Southern District Court of Ohio, which ruled in their favor. That ruling was appealed to the 6th Court of Appeals, which upheld Ohio’s refusal to recognize the marriage. In the interim, Obergefell’s partner died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in October 2013.
The case moved to the Supreme Court, consolidating several other same-sex marriage challenges. On June 26, 2015, the court affirmed the right of same-sex marriage by a vote of 5-4, with Justice William Kennedy writing for the majority: “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. … They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
Obergefell said he believes what John Fryer did 50 years ago was an indispensable part of a long chain of events that led to the Supreme Court decision. “To stand up and testify as a licensed psychiatrist that ‘I am gay’ in such a public, professional venue took an enormous amount of courage at that time,” he said. “It led to APA’s removing homosexuality from DSM, which in turn had such an enormous impact on the LGBT community. That decision gave hope to millions of people because here was a professional organization declaring that people like me were not mentally ill because we happen to love someone of the same sex.”
Obergefell said APA and its members should be proud of Fryer and of the distance the profession has traveled since Fryer’s time. “As a gay man, what matters to me is where you are today,” he said. “I look at where people are today, not where they were in the past. I say that from the perspective of knowing that when any of us come out to our families and friends, we don’t always receive immediate love and support. As psychiatrists, you have incredible power to make a difference in the lives of young LGBTQ+ people, to say ‘you are perfect as you are, you matter, and I am here to help you.”
Obergefell is a member of the Board of Advisors of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., and the National Advisory Council of the GLBT Historical Society. In 2017 he co-wrote the book Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Equality. Born and raised in Sandusky, Ohio, he returned to his hometown in 2021 after living in Cincinnati, Columbus, and Washington, D.C.