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Marriage equality lead plaintiff, Realtor Jim Obergefell on LGBTQ+ advocacy today

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Jim Obergefell is a soft-spoken former Realtor who laughs easily and often. To speak with him, you would not realize that he is also a civil rights icon — one whose name is mentioned often alongside Linda Brown, Norma McCorvey and others who brought about systemic change through their roles as plaintiffs in landmark court decisions.

As the plaintiff in Obergefell v. Hodges, Obergefell sought to honor the memory of his late husband, John Arthur. The result was a sweeping Supreme Court decision making marriage equality the law of the land, and making Jim Obergefell a somewhat unlikely heroic figure.

Now, he is continuing his fight, this time from within the system, running in the Democratic primary for the Ohio House of Representatives. He recently spoke about housing policy as a featured speaker at the LGBTQ+ Real Estate Alliance’s Housing Policy Symposium, held this year in Washington, D.C., I recently had the honor of asking him about his thoughts on housing, equality and what motivates him to continue working on behalf of others.

You’ve made historic contributions to our country through your fight for marriage equality, and now you are on the primary ballot for election to the Ohio House of Representatives. What made you take that step from advocacy to actually entering the political realm?

It’s a couple of things. It really is my experience going to the Supreme Court and fighting for equality, fighting for the LGBT+ community. It just really changed me profoundly experiencing firsthand that positive change is possible, that people really can be part of making the world a better place. That just changed me, and I want to keep doing that. 

You know, I was never an activist before that. Since the decision, I’ve been an activist full-time. And you know, the idea of running for office was planted in my mind on July 4, 2015, less than two weeks after the decision. People started saying, “Jim, you should run for office. I’d vote for you. When are you running for office?” 

It was something that was in the back of my mind, especially as I became more of an activist and more politically involved and aware, but it wasn’t until I moved back to my hometown last year that I found myself in the right place at the right time. When someone said, “Hey, Jim, would you consider running for the Ohio House?” it all just came together, and I realized I really want to be part of making things better for the people of Ohio. 

I believe in doing the right thing, and I believe in public service. And I really just feel like a lot of elected officials have forgotten that they’re public servants.

Affordability is such a prevalent issue in housing, especially over the past couple of years. As both a public figure and a former Realtor, do you see affordable housing as a civil rights issue? How specifically is the LGBTQ+ community affected by issues of affordability? 

Well, you know, having a place to call home, absolutely, in my mind, is a human right. And that is something that every person deserves just by virtue of being a human being. And affordability is key. 

So many people in our nation are struggling to survive on jobs that pay far less than a living wage. And on those types of wages, it’s very difficult to rent, let alone buy a home.

Homes tend to be the biggest investment of most people’s lives. We need to have diverse neighborhoods that are accessible to everyone. And affordability is really what drives that. 

You know, 22 percent of LGBTQ+ people live in poverty, and that’s greater than the general population. If you break that down into the even more marginalized parts of the queer community, for transgender people, it’s 29 percent; bisexual women, 29 percent; Black transgender people, 40 percent; and Latinx transgender people, 45 percent. So there’s a huge percentage of the LGBTQ+ community living in poverty. 

Homeownership rates as of 2020 for the LGBTQ+ community were 49.8 percent; for the non-LGBTQ+ community, it’s 70.1 percent. So there’s a huge difference in homeownership rates between the general population and the LGBTQ+ community. 

A study done by HRC (Human Rights Campaign) found that LGBTQ+ workers earn an average of 90 percent of what straight people do, and that’s even lower for people of color, transgender and non-binary people. So the LGBTQ+ community is hit harder when it comes to pay and when it comes to poverty rates than the general population and that directly impacts their ability to find a home and to be able to afford a home. 

Not to mention the much greater rates of homelessness for the LGBTQ+ community. I mean, 18- to 25-year-old [LGBTQ+ people] are almost 25 times more likely to be homeless than the general population. 

What remedies do you think could help protect members of the LGBTQ+ community from discrimination, both in accessing housing and also just in the industry in general?

Well, you know, one of the best things that happened in this was as a result of the Bostock [v. Clayton County] decision, which held that employment discrimination against someone who is LGBTQ+ is no different than discrimination based on sex. And in 2021, HUD released a memo adding protection to the LGBTQ+ community in housing in the Fair Housing Act as a result of that Bostock decision, so that’s a huge step in the right direction. 

Having government policies say that the queer community deserves these protections, they deserve the right to housing, free of discrimination, that’s such a huge step in the right direction. But that also has to be coupled with attitudes. 

So, you know, policies are one thing, laws are one thing, but in practice, in daily life, in attitudes, that’s where the actual change happens. Unfortunately, I think there’s still a lot of animus against the LGBTQ+ community in our society. So even with that HUD memo, even with the progress the queer community has made in civil rights, and in just general societal acceptance, discrimination is still very real and it still happens.

What can Realtors do who are practicing real estate in states where the legislatures are passing laws specifically aimed at the LGBTQ+ community, like the so-called ‘Don’t say gay’ bill?

One of the most important things that Realtors can do, as well as realty companies, brokers, you name it, when these bills are proposed — don’t say gay bills, bills that are attacking transgender girls who just want to play sports with their friends, all of these bills attacking the LGBTQ+ community — one of the most powerful tools we all have is our voice. 

That means calling our elected officials and leaving messages if you call after hours, sending emails, sending letters, making sure elected officials know that you oppose these harmful bills. That’s one of the most important things that we can do as members of the public when there are laws we disagree with or proposed laws that are harmful, speak out about them. Realtors can do that just as individuals. 

Brokerage firms can do that. You know, the large firms can do can make a public statement saying “We oppose this proposed law and these laws do not align with our values. We believe everyone deserves the right to a home free of discrimination.” So be vocal, and be involved. 

So that’s one of the most important things that people can and should be doing because that’s the only way elected officials will know that these bills that are being pushed by a minority do not reflect the majority of the people in that state. So that’s really what’s so important. 

In an everyday way, for instance with marketing, what can we do to make things better for members of the LGBTQ+ community? 

You know, marketing is important. I’ll give an example: Every time I fly Delta Airlines, and I’m on the jet bridge, it makes me feel good because one of the images there is of two men sitting together. The one man’s head is almost leaning on the other one’s shoulders. And that speaks to me. That tells me Delta as a company sees me and recognizes me. So marketing is important. 

We need to see our families, we need to see ourselves, in marketing for homes. So that’s vital.

And then within our offices, in the way we treat each other as colleagues, I think brokers should consider investing in and offering DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) programs to help everyone in the office experience and understand these so-called differences — because someone is queer, they’re no different than anyone else. They just happen to love someone. 

We’re all human beings. We’re more alike than we are different. So I think anything firms can do to offer training sessions and DEI programming to people in the office is vital because that helps break down those abstract ideas, those abstract concepts of what that other person is like. 

When you learn more, you come to understand that we are really more alike than we are different. So I think that’s one of the most important things that firms can do — bring in speakers, bring in those sessions, anything you can do, whether it’s for the queer community or it’s for Asian Americans — anything that you can do to help people see everyone as a person, as opposed to just as this abstract concept. 

So I think that’s vital. That changes attitudes and helps people. I mean, that’s a good thing.

Make sure that leadership of these firms, of these offices, reflects reality and isn’t just one or two groups of people. Make sure it reflects the diverse nature of our world. Take that into account.

You fought long and hard to make marriage equality a reality. What would you say to people who are tired? How do you stay engaged, and what advice can you give to people who just feel terribly frustrated right now?

You know, I understand that. I understand feeling tired. I understand feeling disheartened, disillusioned because I feel those things as well. But I’ve seen the difference that these positive steps in our nation make in people.

I’ll share one really important story because to me, this illustrates why I keep fighting, and it also illustrates why these Supreme Court cases, which a lot of people don’t necessarily pay that much attention to or don’t necessarily follow … but this story illustrates why we should. 

I spoke at the University of Tennessee earlier this year and a young woman came up afterward. And she said, “Jim, I just wanted to tell you if it weren’t for Obergefell v. Hodges, I wouldn’t be here.” So to have someone come up and tell you that any Supreme Court case, let alone a Supreme Court case bearing your name, is what kept them from committing suicide, that’s such a meaningful experience. 

It just tells me the power of cases like this, the power of being involved, the importance of trying to make the world a better place. I have to keep fighting. 

And it’s really kind of a “thank you” to all of the queer people who came before me who fought. And I did, you know, I think about the Frank Kamenys of the world and the Harvey Milks, people who risked everything or lost everything, Marsha P. Johnson, you name it, I can go on and on, all these people in the many years before me who were willing to stand on that sidewalk, to carry that sign, to be a quiet activist in their community. 

They put so much more on the line than I did. And they helped create a world where John and I could get married and have the federal government recognize it. It was also a world where John and I could then decide yes, we want to sue the state of Ohio because we deserve to exist in Ohio. 

Without all of those people who came before me, I would have never done that. So that’s what keeps me going. keeps me motivated is knowing that I’m paying my dues to the people who helped create a world for me. I want to keep creating a better world for the people who come after me. 

I think about that young woman who would have committed suicide. And I think about the many young people who come up to me, and they’ve never told anyone else, they’ve never even admitted to themselves, and they come out to me. 

You know, I think most people when you talk about a lawsuit, their eyes glaze over. But this has had such a profound impact on people. Not just the abstract impact on our nation, but it has impact on people, and that’s what keeps me going even when I’m the most disillusioned, the most disheartened. I just think about those young people, and I have to keep fighting.

What else should Inman readers know?

I think when people are looking for a home or people are looking to sell a home, there’s so much emotion involved there because it’s all about home. I want everyone reading this to understand that LGBTQ+ people, they want a home. They want a home where they feel safe, where they can be who they are, where they can love the person they love, where they can raise their family. And that’s no different than any other person looking to buy or sell a home. 

If I could ask anything of your readers, of real estate agents, it’s just, remember you are in the business of homes for people, and everyone deserves a home no matter what they look like, no matter whom they love. Everyone deserves a home; just always keep that in mind.

What can people do to support your efforts, and where can they go for more information about you and LGBTQ+ advocacy in real estate?

I will mention the LGBTQ+ Real Estate Alliance if they’re looking for any specific resources or help or if they want to join.

They can certainly go to ObergefellForOhio.com and learn more about me. Sign up to get updates, volunteer, donate. I certainly appreciate it.

One of the most important things people can do is support their state-level equality organization; like here in Ohio, it’s Equality Ohio. And right now I think state-level organizations are really important because I’m not sure how much we can really get accomplished at the federal level. 

You know, the Equality Act has been has been introduced and never goes anywhere. That would update the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity. So until we can pass it at the federal level, we can do things at the state level. 

A couple of other organizations: Family Equality . They advocate for queer families and LGBTQ+ people who want to form families, whether that’s through surrogacy, adoption, fostering, you name it. And again, it comes down to home and family. So Family Equality is really important to me.

The other organization is SAGE and that’s an organization that advocates for older LGBTQ+ people. Talking about home, older LGBTQ+ people are much more likely to age in isolation. And far too often they are forced back into the closet when they can’t find a facility or a place where they can live that takes them. So [these organizations help] kids, family and the older people like me.

Christy Murdock is a Realtor, freelance writer, coach and consultant and the owner of Writing Real Estate. She is also the creator of the online course Crafting the Property Description: The Step-by-Step Formula for Reluctant Real Estate Writers. Follow Writing Real Estate on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.