Obergefell and Hodges: The Accidental Opponents

Fri, 2019-11-01

Monthly Columbus, By Bob Vitale

They’re seen as foes in the fight for marriage equality. But there’s more to the former Supreme Court litigants.

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.

“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.