Author in the Spotlight: Debbie Cenziper


Debbie Cenziper is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter based in Washington, D.C. She has worked at The Washington Post, The Miami Herald and The Charlotte Observer. 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 has won many major awards in American print journalism, including the Robert F. Kennedy Award and the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting from Harvard University. She received the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for stories about affordable housing developers in Miami who were stealing from the poor; a year before that, she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for stories about widespread breakdowns in the nation’s hurricane-tracking system. Debbie grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from the University of Florida in 1992. Debbie’s first book, “Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality,” was published in June 2016 by William Morrow. 

The fascinating and very moving story of the lovers, lawyers, judges and activists behind the groundbreaking Supreme Court case that led to one of the most important, national civil rights victories in decades—the legalization of same-sex marriage. 

In June 2015, the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage the law in all fifty states in a decision as groundbreaking as Roe v Wade and Brown v Board of Education. Through insider accounts and access to key players, this definitive account reveals the dramatic and previously unreported events behind Obergefell v Hodges and the lives at its center. This is a story of law and love—and a promise made to a dying man who wanted to know how he would be remembered. 

Twenty years ago, Jim Obergefell and John Arthur fell in love in Cincinnati, Ohio, a place where gays were routinely picked up by police and fired from their jobs. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government had to provide married gay couples all the benefits offered to straight couples. Jim and John—who was dying from ALS—flew to Maryland, where same-sex marriage was legal. But back home, Ohio refused to recognize their union, or even list Jim’s name on John’s death certificate. Then they met Al Gerhardstein, a courageous attorney who had spent nearly three decades advocating for civil rights and who now saw an opening for the cause that few others had before him. 

This forceful and deeply affecting narrative—Part Erin Brockovich, part Milk, part Still Alice—chronicles how this grieving man and his lawyer, against overwhelming odds, introduced the most important gay rights case in U.S. history. It is an urgent and unforgettable account that will inspire readers for many years to come. 

What motivated you to write a book specifically inclusive of LGBTQ families/issues? 

I had been thinking about writing a book for years, ever since I won a Pulitzer Prize at The Miami Herald in 2007. But I was a busy investigative reporter, writing about how fraud and mismanagement had hobbled government programs meant to help the poor. 

But in early 2015, I read a story in The Washington Post about Ohio resident Jim Obergefell and plaintiffs from three other states who were taking the case for marriage equality to the U.S. Supreme Court. They were ordinary people who had stepped out of their private lives to protect their families, and their journeys moved and inspired me. 

Three months before the Supreme Court ruled on marriage equality, I took an unpaid leave of absence from my job at The Washington Post and started researching Love Wins. Jim Obergefell, the named plaintiff in the case, became my co-author, and over the course of five months, I researched and wrote one chapter every week nonstop. It was an intense schedule, but a true labor of love. 

What do you personally feel makes a family? 

I’m not entirely sure if there’s any one answer to this question, but I can tell you that I spent months getting to know the families behind Obergefell v. Hodges. There was Pam and Nicole Yorksmith, busy raising two boys and a dog in the suburbs of Kentucky, and Joe Vitale and Rob Talmas, who had spent months wading through the adoption process and had become fathers to a gorgeous baby boy they named Cooper. Greg Bourke and Michael DeLeon were scrambling to fill out college applications for their son. David Michener, who had unexpectedly lost his husband, was busy raising the three children they had adopted together. 

At its heart, Love Wins is about universal experiences — commitment, joy, loss, empowerment, love and, most of all, the importance of family. 

What does equality look like to you? 

I was lucky enough to get a seat inside the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2015, the day that marriage equality became law. I was sitting next to Kentucky plaintiffs Greg Bourke, Michael DeLeon and their two teenagers. Jim Obergefell sat nearby, just in front of Pam and Nicole Yorksmith. When Justice Kennedy read the landmark decision, everyone started crying — even the seasoned civil rights lawyers in the front of the room. 

You could hear the roar of the crowd outside through the Supreme Court’s huge double doors. 

Many plaintiffs, including Jim Obergefell, said they felt like true Americans that morning — recognized, valued and accepted. They had filed the case to protect their families, and when the highest court in the land backed them, it was a true turning point for the LGBTQ community in America. 

Whose books do you admire and why? 

Too many to name. I grew up reading Judy Blume, Nora Ephron, Erma Bombeck and Molly Ivins. I decided to become a journalist the day I started reading Anna Quindlen’s columns in The New York Times. Now, I read a mix of everything. I think Kate Boo (“Behind The Beautiful Forevers”) is one of the most gifted writers in America. I am still mourning the loss of Pat Conroy. I read everything that Bob Woodward writes. Beyond books, I am often moved by newspaper columnists Eugene Robinson, Leonard Pitts and Kathleen Parker. 

 What’s coming up next for you? 

A second book! I am researching topics now.