At the time it seemed like gay marriage almost burst on the scene as a demand and as a right. In their beautiful book Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality, Debbie Cenziper and Jim Obergefell (the plaintiff in the Supreme Court’s landmark decision Obergfell v. Hodges) provide the context and the stories behind the decisions that established the right to gay marriage and recognition of gay marriage. Spoiler alert: it didn’t happen all that quickly and their were significant bumps in the road along the way. The legal cases started with a dying man who could not have his lover and then husband of 20 years listed on his death certificate and who couldn’t provide for his husband the same way a heterosexual husband or wife could because the State of Ohio refused to recognize a gay marriage lawfully performed in another state. That’s a very real situation that focused the legal argument and the court’s attention. The relationship of Obergefell and his husband john Arthur is movingly described, and the mere thought of denying their marriage legal recognition is to deny their humanity. Similarly, gay couples with children were only permitted to list one parent on the birth certificate, despite their lawful marriages in other states. That arbitrary position meant that the non-listed parent had no legal status vis-a-vis the child — no right to information about or decision making authority regarding the child’s health, welfare and education. In retrospect, it seems bizarre that any state would go to the trouble to fight gay marriage and recognition of gay marriage when the plaintiffs were fighting for the right to care for and belong to each other, but fight it Ohio did.
Love Wins is powerful because of the human stories it contains, but it also shows how effective lawyers and the legal process can be to protect rights that the majority might deny. The legal history and strategy is absolutely fascinating, and Al Gerhardstein, the main lawyer in the book, is a true hero. He gets kicked in the teeth with hostile court decisions, but he keeps going. He’s not getting rich, but he can obtain justice for his clients. Although Obergefell’s husband didn’t live to see his right vindicated, a satisfying sense of justice and love pervades this book. Reflecting back, I was also touched by all the people who supported the gay plaintiffs and their families. Hostile or simply stunned parents came to realize they loved their gay kids, that their love was unconditional and that their kids needed them. Parents became supporters and advocates. That was their real world, thank goodness.