But that changed in 2015, when the world learned his name as the plaintiff in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, which established same-sex couples across the United States have a fundamental right to marry.
Now, seven years later, Obergefell and LGBTQ advocates worry that right could be in jeopardy. A Supreme Court draft opinion leaked in May showed the high court poised to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion established in 1973’s Roe v. Wade. While the draft opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito said the decision would not necessarily impact Obergefell, advocates worry its logic that “the Constitution makes no reference to abortion” and that access to an abortion is not a right “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” could be applied to overturn other rights such as same-sex marriage or interracial marriage.
The once-reticent Obergefell—now running as a Democrat for the Ohio house of representatives—says he feels a responsibility to use his profile to be vocal, visible, and to raise awareness about the rising threat he sees. “Anything I can do to help people understand how fragile our rights are right now, I will do,” he says.
Ahead of the anniversary of Obergefell v. Hodges on June 26, TIME spoke with Obergefell about the legacy of his lawsuit, the rise of anti-LGBTQ legislation, and why he’s running for political office.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
TIME: Given the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion in May, are you worried that the precedent set by your lawsuit could be in jeopardy?
Obergefell: I am definitely concerned. The language in that draft decision clearly lays the groundwork that opponents of marriage equality—and in my opinion, opponents of all civil rights progress we’ve made in this country—can use to challenge that progress.
Specifically, with marriage equality, Justice Alito repeated the same language used in his dissent in Obergefell in this leaked decision on Dobbs. So I see this as the court teeing up, saying: ‘Here’s some language you can use if you’re opposed to marriage equality, you have friends on the court—and we will hear it if something should make it our way.’
What do you think progressives need to do in response?
I think what we can and should be doing right now is focusing at the state level. And that also applies to a woman’s right to control the decisions made about her body. We need to focus at the state level, because we know the Supreme Court is not going to be our friend on some of these issues.
That means contacting your state legislatures, speaking out about what you believe, and working to take those legal steps, those legislative steps, at a state level to protect those rights. And be loud. Let people know that you support these rights. Let people know that when any right is taken away by the Supreme Court, that puts all rights at risk.
Do you think most Americans understand the threat you described?
I don’t think so. Over the past couple of decades people have said, ‘the right to abortion, the right to control your own body, we’re not going to lose that.’ People got… the only word I can come up with is complacent. People got used to enjoying these rights. And they thought, well, they can never be taken away.
We need to fight that complacency, and that belief that these rights are safe. Because in my opinion, they’re not.
When Obergefell was decided in 2015, did you think the precedent established in the ruling could ever come under threat?
The possibility of Obergefell being overturned, I never once really thought that. But I will say that, even from June 2015, we’ve never really enjoyed marriage equality in this nation. We say marriage equality, and yes, we can get married in all 50 states and all 50 states must recognize marriages from other states. But all I have to do is say Kim Davis, the former Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after Obergefell came down. There are judges and magistrates across the country who, rather than officiate a wedding for same-sex couples, have stopped officiating all weddings. We have bakeries, we have photographers, we have invitation printers, all of these businesses that are open to the public, who refuse to serve same sex-couples who are getting married. So we don’t enjoy marriage equality. And I knew that from the start.
Is the LGBTQ rights movement where you thought it would be seven years ago when the high court ruled in your favor?
Yes and no. Yes, because we had the decision in 2020’s Bostock v. Clayton County, which ruled the Civil Rights Act protects employees in many workplaces from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Back in 2015, I know I wasn’t thinking that we would have a decision like that.
Other decisions haven’t gone our way. 2021 had Fulton v. Philadelphia, which ruled the city of Philadelphia can’t refuse to work with a faith-based foster agency because it won’t certify same-sex couples. Even though that ruling was made narrowly, it still had the effect of allowing a publicly-funded child welfare organization to refuse to work with LGBTQ people.
And then there’s what’s happening to the transgender community. I think after losing their fight to prevent marriage equality, opponents of LGBTQ rights realized, ‘Okay, well let’s find a new target. Let’s go after the most vulnerable in the community that we can find.’ And that happens to be our transgender community. And so now we have these horrible, extreme, mean-spirited laws being proposed and passed around the country.
So there’s been progress, but we are facing increased amounts of hate in society, on the streets, in our classrooms.
Why did you decide to run for the Ohio house of representatives?
The idea of running for office was planted in my mind right after the Obergefell decision, when an out House member in Pennsylvania said, ‘Jim, people are going to start mentioning public service to you. Do me a favor? Don’t just immediately say no.’
He was right. People started to say, ‘Jim, you should run for office. I would vote for you.’ I was hearing that over and over and over again. But I never really found myself in a spot where I said, ‘Okay, this is the time and place for me to do that.’
What changed was moving back to my hometown of Sandusky, Ohio, last year, and coming back to my roots. It seems far too many public servants have forgotten they are public servants. They’re not doing things that make life better for anyone. They’re not focused on jobs and opportunities. They’re not focused on health care. They’re not focused on education. We have a lot of public servants who are more focused on their egos, and their pocketbooks, and the extreme right of the Republican Party.
I changed profoundly because of my fight for marriage equality. And I want to keep being involved and working to make the world a better place. And when someone suggested, ‘Jim, would you think about running to represent this area in the Ohio house of representatives?’ I realized I was finally in the place and time I could seriously consider it. It was just the combination of time, the way my life has changed, my values, and my desire to do the right thing. I thought about it and said, ‘Yeah, now’s the time.’
Republicans currently control the Ohio state house 64-35. What do you hope to accomplish in office?
There are no out members in the Ohio state house at the moment. Even if the things I support—like the Ohio Fairness Act that would create statewide nondiscrimination protections for the LGBTQ+ community, which I would join as a co-sponsor—even if they go nowhere, in my opinion I’m still being successful and effective because I will at least be a voice for the LGBTQ+ community, and all marginalized communities, at the table in Columbus.
What is your message to young LGBTQ people across the country who may be worried that the right to same-sex marriage is under threat?
A friend of a friend, she has a teenage son who is gay. And when Justice Amy Coney Barrett was nominated to the Supreme Court, they were driving home one day and her son started to cry at the thought of losing marriage equality. He turned to his mom and said, ‘Mom, is that going to be taken away from me before I even have the chance to marry someone I love?’ His mom contacted me and shared this story, and I sent him a message. And it is the same message I send to the young people out there who might read this.
It is okay to be afraid. In fact, if you are afraid, that means you’re paying attention. But just know I won’t stop. I won’t stop speaking out. I won’t stop protesting, I won’t stop doing everything in my power to make sure you have the right to marry the person you love. And I am not the only one. There are countless people like me who are out there fighting for this, and we’re not going to let it go. I might not know you, but I am fighting for you. I’m fighting for every queer kid out there, so that they can grow up in a world better than the one I grew up in.
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