June 26, 2003– Lawrence v. Texas Is Decided By SCOTUS
On the evening of September 17, 1998, John Lawrence and Tyron Garner were arrested in Lawrence’s Houston home and then jailed overnight after police officers responding to a false report claimed to have found the two men having sex in Lawrence’s bedroom. Lawrence and Garner were convicted of violating Texas’s Homosexual Conduct Law, which made it a crime for people of the same sex to have oral or anal sex, even though those sex acts were legal in Texas for people to engage in with persons of an opposite sex.
Here’s the story: a drunk Robert Eubanks had called the Harris County Sheriff and report that a black male was going crazy with a gun. Eubanks was angry that his boyfriend, Garner, might have been flirting with Lawrence while the men were sitting around drinking. He wanted revenge.
Four Harris County Sheriff’s deputies responded. Garner and Lawrence were in the living room watching a television show. Eubanks had gone in a bedroom to use the telephone. Garner was wearing just a pair of pants, and Lawrence was in his underwear when a cop knocked on the door, causing it to open a bit. Then he swung it open, and all four officers burst in. There was a black man, but no gun. They arrested Lawrence and Garner without telling the men the charges.
To understand what happened to Lawrence and Garner, remember what life was like for gay men just two decades ago. The police routinely charged LGBTQ people with any charge they could come up with just to put them their place. Most LGBTQ folks would just plead guilty, pay the fine, and try and keep the arrest a secret.
Only those cops in Harris County know why they decided to lie about what happened that night. One said that they had caught the men having anal sex, another said it was just oral sex. Was it because it was an especially hot evening? Were the deputies on edge, anticipating a shoot-out? Had they ever had any sensitivity training? Who can tell? We do know that the deputies held deep religious and cultural objections to homosexuality. They were angered by Lawrence’s swearing. They thought they were dealing with a gay three-way. For sure, the cops knew the accepted reason for arresting gay men was to “teach them a lesson” with a routine arrest and some jail time.
Garner offered no resistance, but Lawrence was outraged. The officers grabbed him and roughed him up. They were both taken to jail and charged with Sodomy.
Lawrence and Garner were given a date to appear before Justice of the Peace Mike Parrott on October 5, 1998. The jail faxed the charges to Parrott’s office. By chance, the fax was sent to Nathan Broussard, a clerk and a closeted gay man whose partner was a Harris County deputy. Broussard couldn’t believe what he was reading, and discovered there was no computer code for the crime. He called his partner, who asked Broussard to fax him the charges at his home. Later, in normal cocktail conversation, they told Lane Lewis, their favorite bartender at their regular gay bar hangout, about the case. Lewis was active in Houston’s Gay Rights groups. He asked the men for a copy of the charges, and after he read them, he called Lawrence. Lawrence had no idea what a “Gay Rights Activist” was, but agreed to meet with Lewis, who already suspected that the case was perfect for a court challenge.
The Sodomy Law in Texas was rarely enforced, usually only when sex was occurring in a public place. Attempts to challenge it had been rejected by the courts. What Gay Rights activists needed was an arrest made in the privacy of a home.
Lewis asked Lawrence to become part of a legal challenge. Lawrence wasn’t interested. Lewis changed his mind by invoking the names of Gay Rights pioneers Harry Hay and Harvey Milk. Lewis referred him to attorney Mitchell Katine. Katine contacted Lambda Legal, who, for 25 years, had taken up legal challenges on behalf of the nation’s LGBTQ community.
Lambda quickly took the case. They wanted Garner and Lawrence to have no contact with the media, and they wanted no jury trial, no officers on the witness stand, and no testimony from the accused men. Lawrence found the situation to be a special sacrifice, because he was in a monogamous relationship with a partner, José, and had never had sex with Garner. Garner and Lewis were told not to lie about not having sex, but they were coached to not dispute the validity of the charges. No one ever asked.
Battling for the next four years in the Texas courts, Lambda sought to overturn the criminal convictions, which would make the two guys “registered sex offenders” and to have Texas’s archaic sodomy law declared unconstitutional. When the highest court in Texas eventually refused to even hear the arguments, the US Supreme Court took on the case.
Lambda prepared a brilliant case against the Texas sodomy law. They explained why the law, which applied to gay people but not straights, violated the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing equal protection under the law. Then they outlined why the prohibition against sexual intimacy in one’s home violates a citizen’s liberty and privacy, which is protected by the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. In conclusion, they presented their justification for overruling 1986’s Bowers v. Hardwick.
On this day, June 26, in 2003, in a really stunning victory, the highest court in the land found the Texas Homosexual Conduct Law unconstitutional and established, for the first time ever, that gay citizens share the same fundamental right to private sexual acts with another adult that straight people have. Chief Justice William Rehnquist announced that the majority opinion in the Lawrence v. Texas case would be read by Justice Anthony Kennedy. Kennedy began his nine-minute reading by reviewing the 400-year history of sodomy laws. Then, he began to address Bowers v. Hardwick. He took a deep breath, paused, and said that Bowers “Failed to appreciate the extent of the liberty at stake”, and that the earlier interpretation:
“Demeans the lives of homosexual persons. Gay men and lesbians were entitled to respect for their private lives” and that the state could not “control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime.”
SCOTUS decided in favor of Lawrence. They announced that their Bowers v. Hardwick ruling was now overturned. People in the court burst in to tears, Yet, the real stunner was SCOTUS’s unprecedented apology for that 1986 ruling. The timing of the decision was unbelievable, just two days before Washington DC and Houston’s Gay Pride celebrations.
Antiquated sodomy laws have often been used to justify discrimination against LGBTQ people. In striking down those laws, this historic ruling removed a major roadblock in the battle for Gay Rights. LGBTQ people would no longer be considered criminals because they like getting it on with someone of same sex. Even more important, laws that deny LGBTQ people liberty or equal protection could no longer find justification on moral grounds alone. This distinction cannot be overstated when arguing with the haters.
The impact of this landmark case is extraordinary. SCOTUS declared all sodomy laws unconstitutional, putting an end to the sodomy laws that remained on the books in 13 states at the time of the ruling, including laws that criminalized only same-sex conduct and laws that criminalized oral and anal sex for any consenting adult. The decision’s sweeping language about gay people’s equal rights began a new era of legal respect for LGBTQ citizens of our country. Until the June 2015 SCOTUS ruling on Marriage Equality, Lawrence v. Texas was considered the most significant Gay Rights breakthrough of our era and became the law of the land.
Eubanks died in 2012. Garner was taken by pneumonia in 2005. Lawrence suffered a stroke in early 2011, and died a few months later.
Now, with a religious authoritarian Vice President, a Republican Congress and a quickly changing lineup at SCOTUS, is the Lawrence v. Texas ruling safe? Remember… a Supreme Court decision can be overturned.