Debbie Cenziper is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter at The Washington Post. Over 20 years, Debbie's stories have sent people to prison, changed laws, prompted federal investigations and produced more funding for affordable housing, mental health care and public schools. She is the co-author of Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality and shares the story behind this historic win that has deep ties to Unitarian Universalism.
In April 2015, on the Sunday before the U.S. Supreme Court would hear historic arguments on the legalization of same-sex marriage, Cincinnati civil rights attorney and Unitarian Universalist Al Gerhardstein went to church.
Al had spent years advocating for the gay community and had suffered a crushing defeat in the 1990s when the Supreme Court declined to take on his case calling for an end to one of the most divisive issues in the history of Cincinnati – a ban on all laws that would protect the gay community from discrimination.
Cincinnati voters repealed the ban in 2004, but voters in the state of Ohio that year enacted a new one: A constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. The law not only prevented gay people from marrying, but also from having their marriages recognized even when they had been legally performed in other states. All told, 3.3 million people voted to embed the ban in the state’s Constitution.
Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality chronicles the David-and-Goliath struggle to overturn that ban and bring marriage equality to all 50 states after years of incremental rulings.
Love Wins is a story about ordinary people who stepped out of their private lives to tell the world that they mattered. It is a story about Al Gerhardstein and a group of dynamic, determined civil rights lawyers who fought in courtroom after courtroom, in state after state, until they wound up before the highest court in the land. More than anything, it is a story about the extraordinary power of love.
I was working as an investigative reporter at The Washington Post in 2015 when I first heard about the plaintiffs in the case. They had come together not to change the world but to protect their families, an overriding, universal need that instantly moved me, both as a journalist and a human being.
At an American Civil Liberties Union press conference, Jim Obergefell, the named plaintiff in the case, described his fight against the state of Ohio for what seemed like such a simple thing: an accurate death certificate for his late husband, John Arthur.
Two years earlier, Jim and John – who was dying from ALS – had chartered a medical plane and exchanged vows on an airport tarmac in Maryland, where same-sex marriage was legal. But back home, Ohio refused to recognize the marriage, which meant that John would be described as single on his death certificate when he died, with no surviving spouse.
Jim sat alongside same-sex couples whose children had been denied birth certificates that included the names of both parents. The youngest plaintiff in the case, two-year-old Cooper Talmas-Vitale, toddled around the room during the press conference munching on strawberries and ducking under chairs as one of his fathers described the heartbreak of being forced to choose which father to list on Cooper’s birth certificate and which father to leave off, officially a legal stranger.
That afternoon, listening to a grieving man and a group of worried parents, the beginnings of Love Wins took shape.
At the heart of the story is Al Gerhardstein, whose journey from an Ohio chicken farm to New York University to civil rights law (and now UUA’s 2016 Holmes-Weatherly award winner) has inspired so many Love Wins readers.
The First Unitarian Church in Cincinnati was a part of that journey. Year after year, the church supported Al and the city’s gay community, eventually hosting a send-off the day on the Sunday before Al would head to the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. for oral arguments on marriage equality.
Two months later, on June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court delivered its landmark ruling, legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.
Co-authored with plaintiff Jim Obergefell, Love Wins hit bookshelves nationwide just in time for the one-year anniversary of the decision.
At book signings, gay men and women beam when they introduce their spouses, no longer a “partner” or a “significant other” but a “husband” or a “wife.”
“How long have you been married?” I always ask. “Are you newlyweds?”
Over and over, I get some version of this joyful response. “We got married last June – but we’ve been together for 40 years.”