Sally Kohn is a CNN political commentator and an essayist.
Damn you, Debbie Cenziper and Jim Obergefell, for making me want to get married. Despite the gay rights movement successfully foregrounding marriage as a mainstream aspiration for same-sex couples, and the legislative and legal achievements that followed, I managed to stay quite comfortable with my radical queer politics of anti-marriage cynicism — until I read “Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality.”
Although I have what might otherwise look like a conventional family — monogamous partner, kid, dog, too much debt — I’m proud of the fact that we’ve defined the parameters of our family on our own terms, rather than conforming to, let alone seeking the approval of, some state-sanctioned heteronormative box. And consciously rejecting the sanctimony of marriage can make one feel downright sanctimonious, more and more so as everyone and their lesbian mother is getting gay-married around you (though, I should note, not actually marrying their mothers — slippery-slope warnings to the contrary). But I still cry at weddings. And even when reading about them, apparently.
Co-author Obergefell was the named plaintiff in Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark case in which the Supreme Court held just a year ago, in June 2015, that the Constitution extends the fundamental right to marry to all Americans, including same-sex couples. Though “Love Wins” is embellished with stories of other gay and lesbian couples whose cases were consolidated into the ruling, it is Obergefell’s own story that is not only the book’s primary narrative but its most wrenching.
His story was, of course, central in the litigation leading up to and surrounding the Supreme Court verdict. But even the most moving stories tend to seem like utilitarian footnotes in constitutional jurisprudence. “Love Wins” manages to recount the technical details of the court cases while emphasizing the human stories at their center. It’s a living, breathing tribute to the lives of those whose testimony formed the backbone of world-altering change. And “Love Wins” is also a quiet reminder of how much plaintiffs sacrifice, how much of themselves they give and expose, in order to win that change.
Obergefell fell in love with his partner, John Arthur, and then, 19 years into their relationship, Arthur developed ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Obergefell and Cenziper, a Washington Post reporter, achingly describe the progression of the illness: “Left shoulder. Left arm. Left fingers. Jim started coaxing John’s twitching arms into a dress shirt every morning before work.”
In 2013, two years after the diagnosis, with Arthur’s health seriously degrading, the Supreme Court struck down a key section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and Obergefell and Arthur decided to get married. It wasn’t at all easy. It took a $12,000 chartered medical flight from their home in Ohio to Maryland, where same-sex marriage was then legal. But they did it.
“I give you my heart, my soul, and everything I am,” Obergefell said in his vows, in the medical plane on the tarmac touching Maryland soil. “I am honored to call you my husband.”
He and Cenziper paint the raw picture of Arthur’s response: “ ‘With. This. Ring. I. Thee. Wed,’ John said, careful not to trip on the words.” In July 2013, Jim Obergefell and John Arthur got married. In October 2013, just three months later, John Arthur died.
Obergefell, at the urging of a dogged civil rights attorney named Al Gerhardstein, sued the state of Ohio simply to be listed on Arthur’s death certificate. The rest, as they say, is history. Also history? The entire box of tissues I used up just getting to this part of the book.
And though “Love Wins” centers on Obergefell and Arthur’s story — which became a historical given when Obergefell became the named plaintiff of the Supreme Court case, but also because of the moving details of their lives — the book eventually folds in stories of other gay and lesbian families. The mother who almost can’t get emergency medical care for her baby because she’s not the mom on the birth certificate. The children who want their dad’s relationship to be treated the same as those of all the other parents they know. And to the extent that much of the opposition to marriage equality demonizes same-sex couples as dangerous monsters, “Love Wins” responds with almost painfully normal portraits: We try to distract our little ones with iPads, just like you would during hours-long oral arguments.
“Love Wins” is by no means a flawless treatise. I was stunned that, throughout a book about the quest to have same-sex marriages recognized and treated as equal to opposite-sex marriages, the authors repeatedly noted when characters were black or Latino but otherwise left whiteness to be assumed. In the second dominant narrative of the book, that of the lawyer Gerhardstein, Cenziper and Obergefell recount his failed efforts to challenge a ballot measure passed by Cincinnati voters to repeal the city’s gay rights ordinance. The writers note that on the second day of the trial, Gerhardstein called Kenneth Sherrill, “a political science professor at Hunter College in New York and an expert on gay and lesbian politics.” Sherrill, we’re meant to assume (correctly), is white. But on the third day of the trial, they write, Gerhardstein “questioned African American lawyer Jerome Culp, the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner who had earned a Harvard law degree and gone on to teach employment and labor law at Duke University.”
Similarly, in describing Michael De Leon, one of the plaintiffs in the larger consolidated case, Cenziper and Obergefell write that he has “black hair and mocha-colored skin inherited from his Mexican ancestors.” I couldn’t find a single instance in the book where the authors noted the race of Obergefell and Arthur, nor for that matter any of the other white defendants. I don’t make this point to be picky but because it rattled me and tripped me up, especially given the book’s presumptive purpose. Heteronormativity be damned, but racial normativity endures. It’s a reminder that one can be chipping away at one form of implicit hierarchy while simultaneously reinforcing others. Few are immune from this, myself included.
This critique aside, “Love Wins” is a downright joy to read. It’s a rare and special feeling to be alive for moments of world-changing history, let alone to get to so quickly yet thoroughly reflect on what led to those moments. And in my experience from law school onward, it’s even more rare to read a book about a historic Supreme Court case that makes you cry. And (almost) makes you want to rush out and join history, damn it.
Sally Kohn is a CNN political commentator and an essayist.
By Debbie Cenziper and Jim Obergefell
Morrow. 287 pp. $27.99