In Texas, teens can go to jail for gay sex; bill seeks to fix 'Romeo and Juliet' law

Posted on 01 Apr 2009 at 11:00am

It’s not often that committees of the Texas House conduct hearings on pro-equality legislation on two consecutive days.

Yesterday, the House Committee on Public Education heard testimony on a bill that would require school districts to report incidents of bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity, among other factors. I missed the live broadcast of the hearing on the Legislature’s Web site, but Chuck Smith from Equality Texas reports on the group’s blog that most committee members seemed supportive of the legislation. The committee is expected to vote on the anti-bullying measure, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Mark Strama of Austin, in the next few weeks.

Today’s committee hearing involves a bill that isn’t formally backed by Equality Texas, but which is actually more gay-specific than the other two pro-equality bills that have been discussed in committee so far this year. HB 3564, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Garnet Coleman of Houston, would essentially fix Texas’ age-of-consent laws so that they apply evenly to homosexual and heterosexual activity. The age of consent in Texas is 17. However, if you’re less than three years older than the “victim” and of the OPPOSITE SEX, this can be used as an affirmative defense (like self-defense in a murder case) against a charge of indecency with a minor. Indecency with a minor is a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison, and the bill would remove the opposite sex provision so that the affirmative defense applies to both heterosexual and homosexual activity. These types of age-of-consent provisions are commonly referred to “Romeo and Juliet” laws.

It’s understandable that Equality Texas isn’t advertising its support for this bill, given the subject matter and the associated negative stereotypes. However, it’s an important piece of legislation and there’s no doubt they are working behind the scenes to try to move it forward. I don’t know of any recent cases in Texas where this law has been used to prosecute a teenager for having gay sex, but it’s certainly happened in other states with similar laws. One man in Kansas recently served more than five years in prison before his conviction was overturned by the state’s Supreme Court. Interestingly, the Kansas case was the first in the nation to cite the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in  Lawrence v. Texas as a precedent.

Coleman’s bill is scheduled for a hearing before the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence this afternoon. You can tune in by going here.

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