Remembering John Lawrence, the man behind Lawrence v. Texas

Lawrence

John Lawrence and Tyrone Gardner

Metro Weekly reports that one-time Houstonian John Geddes Lawrence, the “Lawrence” in Lawrence v. Texas, passed away last month at the age of 68:

“In the facts underlying the Supreme Court case, Lawrence v. Texas, Lawrence and Tyron Garner were arrested under Texas’s Homosexual Conduct Law after police entered Lawrence’s home on Sept. 17, 1998, and saw them “engaging in a sexual act.” The couple challenged the law as unconstitutional”

I was 22 and living in Dallas in 2003 when the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Lawrence declaring Texas’ law against “homosexual conduct” unconstitutional. A group of over 100 people gathered in the parking lot of the Resource Center of Dallas as Dennis Coleman, then with Lambda Legal, read excerpts of the decision. I remember the exuberant electricity in the air, the crowd bubbling with joy and the relief of centuries of official oppression finally coming to an end. Similar get-togethers took place across the state, as an entire community breathing a collective sigh of relief.

That relief has turn to frustration over the years. Although the Supreme Court decision rendered Penal Code Section 21.06 unconstitutional, the law remains on the books, and efforts to remove it have met with significant resistance. During a hearing this spring on finally removing the unconstitutional law, Rep. Jose Aliseda, R – Pleasanton, lamented that repeal of the law would entail removing portions of the Health Code requiring that HIV education efforts include information that “homosexual conduct is not an acceptable lifestyle and is a criminal offense under Section 21.06, Penal Code.”

Before Lawrence several attempts were made to remove the law against “homosexual conduct.” The Texas legislature voted to remove it from the penal code as part of a complete rewrite of the code in 1971, but the measure was vetoed by Gov. Preston Smith. In 1973 the Legislature again undertook a rewrite of the code, keeping “homosexual conduct” a crime but making it a class C misdemeanor. In 1981 a U.S. District Court ruled in Baker v. Wade that the law was unconstitutional, but as that case was winding its way through an unusually torturous appeals process the Supreme Court ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick that a similar law in Georgia was constitutional, making the questions in Baker moot. Similarly, in the 90′s there was hope that Texas v. Morales might finally prevail in defeating the “homosexual conduct” prohibition, but the Texas Supreme Court decided that since, in their opinion, the law was rarely enforced, there was no reason for them to rule in the matter.

Lawrence’s legacy lives on in a scholarship named after him and Garner administered by the Houston GLBT Community Center. The scholarship “recognizes outstanding leadership shown by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Texas high school seniors and college
students by contributing to the cost of their continuing education. Selection is based upon character and need.” Tim Brookover, president of the community center, expressed sorrow at Lawrence’s passing “John was a hero, the community owes a great debt of gratitude to John and Tyrone for taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court,” said Brookover. “They could have easily allowed it to slip away, but they decided to stay and fight and that makes them heroes and role models.”

The application deadline for the John Lawrence/Tyrone Gardner Scholarship is March 2, 2012.

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We don’t all have the luxury of time

The American Foundation for Equal Rights, the organization behind the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, has asked the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to lift its injunction and allow legal same-sex marriages to resume in California as the lawsuit moves through the appeals process.

As you probably remember, early last year federal District Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that Prop 8 — an amendment to the California Constitution approved in a 2008 voter referendum — violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection. California state officials said they would not appeal the ruling because they, too, believed Prop 8 to be unconstitutional. But the folks who backed the amendment in the first place and who were the only ones to try to defend it in Walker’s court, did appeal the decision to the 9th Circuit, which issued an injunction that is keeping same-sex marriages from resuming under Walker’s ruling. But in addition, the 9th Circuit, unsure whether the Prop 8 supporters even have legal standing to appeal, have asked the California Supreme Court to weigh in on the question of standing.

And therein lies the problem. The California Supreme Court justices have said they will issue an opinion on standing, but they aren’t in any hurry to do it. In fact, they don’t plan to issue any decisions until sometime after the summer.

And that just isn’t soon enough for some people, and that’s why AFER is asking the 9th Circuit to lift the injunction.  We don’t all have the luxury of time, and that includes 78-year-old Ed Watson of Palm Springs.

Watson has joined in Courage Campaign’s efforts to get the injunction lifted by writing this letter and making the video above. I think he says it all:

“Yesterday, I found out the California Supreme Court denied a motion to speed up the Prop 8 trial. They’re going to take their summer recess and come back in around 6 months or so. It must be nice for them.

“The thing is, I am 78 years old, and I have Alzheimer’s disease. I have been with my partner, Derence, for over 40 years. And if the courts drag this out for months and months, I fear I will, God forbid, lose the ability to recognize my beloved Derence when he gets on his knee to propose to me.

“I can’t afford that, and Derence deserves better. That’s why I agreed to be named in Courage Campaign’s amicus curiae letter to the 9th Circuit, asking that the stay be lifted so I can at least have my dignity on our wedding day.

“Please watch this video of my and my partner Derence, then co-sign our letter to the 9th Circuit, begging them to lift the stay while the California Supreme Court drags its feet.

“If the California Supreme Court is going to take its time, then we deserve the dignity of marriage … before I can’t remember what marriage is.”

“Humbly, Ed Watson, Palm Springs, CA.”

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