Today is the fourth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which made marriage equality the law of the land. The lead plaintiff in the case, Jim Obergefell, came out as an atheist in April at the American Atheists National Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was the keynote speaker.
An abridged version of his address is the cover story of the current issue of American Atheist magazine. It’s not currently in stores, but subscriptions to the bi-monthly magazine are free to all members of American Atheists. To join, go to atheists.org/membership.
Thank you so very much for inviting me. It’s great to be here. Before I say anything else, I have something I want to get off my chest. I’ve been afraid to tell anyone because I wasn’t sure how people would react. I don’t want to lose friends. I don’t want to have relationships change because of this. So I’m just going to spit it out: I’m an atheist.
I thought my coming-outs were in the past, but unlike many LGBTQ people coming out to someone they love, I know I’m coming out as an atheist with people who will not judge me. Even so, I admit I feel a bit of anxiety. Our society tells us that a belief in a higher power is necessary in order to be a good person, a moral person, a real person. Well, I’m a man who happens to be gay and an atheist. And I’m tired of the closet.
Cincinnati was my home for 32 years. It’s where I met, fell in love with, and proposed to my late husband, John Arthur, the love of my life.
When John was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, I became his full-time caregiver. ALS breaks the connections between the brain and muscles throughout the body. Most patients die within 2 to 5 years of diagnosis when they suffocate because the diaphragm has stopped receiving messages from the brain to breathe.
As his full-time caregiver, I watched the man I love lose every ability over the course of just two years. Caring for him was tiring, overwhelming, and scary. But above all, it was the right thing to do when you love someone and you’ve promised to care for them in good and in bad.
I’d almost lost him once before, in 1995, and when that happened, I was afraid that religion was going to create issues. John was an allergic asthmatic, and during an especially bad episode, he respiratory arrested. The ambulance took him to a Catholic hospital, and as his mom, brother, and I waited in the emergency room. I wondered if I would be able to see John when — if — he was stabilized. A Catholic hospital was not the place I expected to find compassion for a gay couple. A nurse finally came out to tell me that John had been stabilized, and when I said I needed to go back, she asked who I was, and I said his partner. You can imagine my relief when she didn’t blink an eye and took me back.
Imagine that same scenario in our current climate where religious leaders, legislators, and business owners are pushing for the right to use religion to discriminate in the public sphere. In the United States, more than 40% of hospitals and 85% of long-term care facilities are religiously affiliated. Many of them, institutions and individual providers alike, are demanding the right to deny service to LGBTQ people.
In no way am I saying this applies to all religions or congregations. I’m glad that there are religious leaders who preach love and acceptance to all. I may be an atheist, but I don’t paint all people who believe in a higher power as my enemy, and I hope you can all say the same.
Like many of you, I was raised in a religion. I’m the baby of six in a Catholic family and grew up in an environment where I had only one image of my future: I would marry a woman and father children. By the time I was a teenager, almost all of my siblings had married and most had children. That’s what I would do, too. After all, what other option did I have?
But by the age of 8 or 9, I knew I was different because I rescued the Sears and Penney’s catalogs from the trash solely to cut out the pages of men’s underwear. I didn’t quite understand why I wanted them, I didn’t have a word for it, but I knew it was wrong. As I got older and could finally use the word that explained me, I refused to accept that I could be so different from everyone else. So I continued to hold it inside.
I think this is one of the most damaging things religion has been used for: to convince LGBTQ kids that that they are damaged, broken, or evil. Those kids grow up doubting themselves, or worse, hating themselves. As they struggle, they look to their family for love and support and often experience the opposite. A parent’s most important, most solemn duty is to love and protect their child, yet religion often leads that parent to abandon that duty when the child needs them the most.
I know how lucky I was when I came out. My dad and siblings all reacted with love and support. My mother died when I was 18, and I regret never knowing her as my true self.
I drifted away from the Catholic Church during my high school and early college years and attended Methodist services as an undergraduate. I eventually converted to Episcopalianism — what I love to call “Catholic light.” The minister in my church said something that I really appreciated: I didn’t have to believe everything he or the Episcopal church said. Within a year, I finally realized I didn’t believe in God, Jesus, or a higher power of any sort. I prefer to believe in my fellow humans, and that knowing right from wrong is based on how I want to be treated by others, not because of religion or a threat of eternal damnation.
The first time I met John, I was still closeted, and he scared the daylights out of me. I knew I was gay, but I was still afraid to admit it out loud to myself, let alone anyone else. And John was this out, gay man who was so comfortable in himself that I was afraid he would see right through me and expose me for what I really was. But I survived that first meeting with my secret intact.
The next time I met John, I had by then come out, and as we chatted, he said, “Well, you’d never go out with someone like me.” I have no idea where I found the wit or the courage to respond the way I did. But I said, “How do you know? You’ve never asked.
And he still didn’t.
The third time John and I met was at a New Year’s Eve party at his house. A mutual friend had invited me. I went to that party and I never left. John liked to say it was love at third sight.
Within two years, marriage had become a topic of conversation, but we agreed not to get married as long as it would only be symbolic. We did, however, make promises in every way that mattered to us, and everything that we did in life together was informed by our commitment and love for one another.
In 2011, our 18th year together, I started to notice that John’s walk sounded different, as if one foot was slapping the floor harder than the other. That led to several months of doctor visits and eventually neurologist visits. On the day of his diagnosis, our world shattered, and for the next two years, it grew smaller as John started using a cane, then a walker, than a wheelchair.
John worried more about me than himself, so it was at his urging that we sold our condo and bought something more handicap accessible. John also said, “Jim, my name will not be on the deed of the new condo. I don’t want you to have any issues when I’m gone.”
Two years and one day after John’s diagnosis, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Windsor that it was unconstitutional for the federal government to only recognize opposite-sex marriages. I spontaneously proposed to John, and he said yes.
In a perfect world, I could have taken him six blocks to the county courthouse for a marriage license. Instead, we had to figure out how to take a dying man out of state in order to do something that millions of others took for granted. We settled on Maryland because it was the only state allowing same-sex marriage that did not require both people to appear in person to apply for the marriage license.
I wasn’t willing to put John in an ambulance for that long of a trip, and he wasn’t able to fly commercially. A chartered medical jet was our only option. So we were married inside a cramped jet on the tarmac of the Washington International Airport just 15 days after the Court’s ruling, with John’s Aunt Paulette officiating.
It was the happiest moment of our lives.
All we wanted was to live out John’s remaining days as husband and husband. Then we learned that the State of Ohio would ignore our lawful marriage on John’s death certificate. His last official record as a person would be wrong. It would say he was unmarried, and my name would not be listed as his surviving spouse.
When Al Gerhardstein, a local civil-rights attorney, asked if we wanted to do something about that, John and I decided we could not be silent. In Ohio, first cousins and underage couples cannot get a marriage license. However, if such couples get married in another state, Ohio recognizes that marriage. Not so for same-sex couples. We filed suit against the City of Cincinnati and the State of Ohio to demand that they recognize our marriage on John’s death certificate. We won that same day.
John died exactly three months later, on October 22, 2013, knowing he was a married man who had done what he could to live up to his promises to me.
Not long after John died, the State of Ohio appealed, and we lost. We then joined over 30 other plaintiffs in our own appeal, which was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In that case, Obergefell v. Hodges, the State argued that marriage has been a union of one man and one woman for thousands of years. They argued that same-sex marriage would diminish the value of other marriages and would negatively impact procreation and harm the family. Those same arguments, based in religious tradition, were used at one time to justify bans on interracial marriage. As our attorney argued the case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out that marriage has already changed because women are no longer considered the property of their husbands.
On June 26, 2015, as I sat in the courtroom listening to Justice Anthony Kennedy read his decision, for the first time in my life, I felt like an equal American since coming out as a gay man. While the news was sinking in and the celebrations started across the nation, I thought about John, the man I would do anything for, and it gave me comfort knowing he could truly rest in peace — whatever that means — as my husband. And I no longer had worry about checking my mail and pulling out an updated death certificate from the State of Ohio that erased our marriage from existence.
Since the ruling, opponents of equality haven’t rested in their efforts to deny rights to the LGBTQ community, nor will they any time soon. They claim that religious leaders will be forced to perform marriages that go against their faith. Nothing requires them to perform any marriage that goes against their religious beliefs. They demand preference for their religion in all aspects of public life at the expense of others who do not believe as they do. They are asking for something that is the antithesis of religious freedom.
The atheist community can’t fight this alone. We have to fight alongside the many religious denominations and congregations that believe in equality. If I believe in anything, I believe that love wins. I have faith in that. I’ll continue to fight for that and for the promises made to us in our Constitution, and I hope you’ll fight by my side.
And thank you for making my second coming out such a good one.