A look at the history of Lawrence v. Texas shows why the two men who fought the sodomy law, both now deceased, deserve our respect
Former Houston residents John Lawrence and Tyron Garner, both now deceased, couldn’t possibly have realized 13 years ago that one of the most mortifying events of their lives would wind up changing the course of history for an entire society of people.
The two gay men, who arguably were the unlikeliest pair of gay advocates to ever play high-profile roles in the U.S. LGBT rights movement, turned out to be the catalysts for striking down centuries of oppressive American law and establishing same-sex relations as a basic civil right. Prior to the filing of a landmark LGBT rights lawsuit on their behalf, the men had no involvement with gay rights organizations.
In June 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the 1973 Texas Homosexual Conduct Law in its review of Lawrence v. Texas, effectively striking down the 14 remaining state sodomy laws that prohibited sexual relations between consenting adults of the same sex. In doing so the high court reversed its 1986 decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, which had upheld Georgia’s sodomy law.
In rendering the decision the justices wrote that gay men and lesbians were entitled to privacy, and that states had no right to restrict their personal sexual lives, a startling contrast from the ruling in the Georgia lawsuit that maintained there was no fundamental right to homosexual relations.
Even Justice Antonin Scalia, a dissenting voice in the court’s 6-3 vote, acknowledged that the Lawrence decision by the high court supported a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.
It was a remarkable turn of events sparked by unremarkable men who apparently had never entertained any ideas of gay activism prior to their arrest in Lawrence’s Houston-area apartment in 1998 when a sheriff’s deputy entered the apartment to investigate a false crime report.
The deputy claimed he saw the pair engaged in a sex act rather than the disturbance that was reported, and he arrested them on deviant sex charges.
Despite the horror of being humiliated, arrested, taken out of the apartment virtually undressed and then jailed, the case had a relatively quick initial disposition. Lawrence and Garner paid fines of $125 and court costs of $141.25 for the Class C misdemeanors while pleading no contest.
Robert R. Eubanks — the also now-deceased boyfriend of Lawrence who had, in a fit of jealously, called 911 with the false crime report — spent two weeks in jail as punishment for his part in the fiasco.
It was there the story could have taken a much different turn than it did. But Lawrence and Garner ultimately decided on a course of action that the law enforcement authorities who arrested them probably never dreamed might occur.
The two gay men resisted oppression by following the advice of Lambda Legal attorneys who wanted to wage a legal battle against the antiquated, discriminatory law, which was rarely enforced.
At that point Lawrence and Garner became to the LGBT community what Rosa Parks represented to the nation’s African-American community in 1955 in Montgomery, Ala., when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. Her civil disobedience against the city regulation sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and it became a major symbolic force in propelling the civil rights movement forward.
The success of the Lawrence case had a similar impact on the nation’s LGBT community, and the gains have been monumental during the past eight years.
Although Parks was active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as secretary at the time, she was just a seamstress in a local department store. She lost her job over the incident and eventually moved to Detroit to find similar work.
It would be years later before Parks was honored for her bravery and became known as the “first lady of the civil rights movement” and the “mother of the freedom movement.” Parks lived another 50 years and received many honors during that time.
The parallel between Lawrence, a white man, and Garner, a black man, and Parks is their socio-economic status and ordinariness at the times they made decisions that would have such far-reaching effects upon their communities.
Lawrence, who was 68 when he died on Nov. 20, 2011, was a medical technologist until his retirement in 2009. His death from a heart condition apparently went unnoticed for at least a month by the media, legal advocates and the LGBT community — until his Houston lawyer, Mitchell Katine, reportedly tried to invite him to a commemorative event for the court ruling.
Garner was 39 when he died Sept. 11, 2006 of meningitis. He had been unemployed at the time of his historic arrest in 1998. But he had worked at a number of different types of jobs, and he had a criminal record that included two convictions for assault in 1995 and 2000.
Both Lawrence and Garner were “quiet, passive” men who preferred to avoid public scrutiny, according to Katine. Lawrence reportedly was intimidated because he was still closeted to so many, but his outrage over being taken to jail in his underwear motivated him to push forward as one of the faces of the legal challenge.
The pair, who had been occasional sex partners but never lovers, lived out their lives separately. Lawrence lived with a partner at the time of his death, and Garner was being cared for by his brother when he died.
Eubanks, who introduced Lawrence and Garner to each other and put everything in motion by making the false 911 call, was beaten to death in 2000. The case was never solved.
It probably was more by design on the part of Lawrence and Garner that their contributions to the LGBT rights movement have largely gone uncelebrated during the past eight years, but it might be a good time to pay them more respect.
After all, they could have easily just paid the fines and walked back into the obscurity of their lives rather than stepping into the glare of public scrutiny and the pages of history. If that had happened, we might still be where we were when they were first arrested.
David Webb is a veteran journalist who has reported on LGBT issues for three decades. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 6, 2012.