Forgotten heroes?

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

Lawrence198

HERO | John Lawrence was an unlikely activist, prompted to action after being arrested.

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.

David-Webb

David Webb The Rare Reporter

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 davidwaynewebb@hotmail.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 6, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

New Facebook statuses applauded by gay users

Civil union, domestic partnership added to relationship options

JOCELYN NOVECK  |  Associated Press

NEW YORK — Jay Lassiter is no longer “in a relationship.”

Let’s clarify that: Lassiter, a media adviser for political campaigns who lives in Cherry Hill, N.J., is still with his partner of nearly eight years, Greg Lehmkuho. But since Thursday, when Facebook expanded its romantic-status options, Lassiter’s profile there echoes his relationship’s legal status: “Domestic partnership.”

It may not be a life-altering change. After all, you can call yourself anything you want on a social network. And Facebook is merely that.

But, Lassiter notes: “I’m no different from all those other Facebook users whose identity is tied up with their Facebook pages, for better or for worse.”

And so, he says: “It’s high time. It’s an affirming gesture. It’s sort of one tiny step for gays, but a giant leap for gay rights.”

Facebook’s addition of civil unions and domestic partnerships to the list of relationships its users can pick from came after talks with gay rights organizations, including GLAAD, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

The social network has “sent a clear message in support of gay and lesbian couples to users across the globe,” said GLAAD’s president, Jarrett Barrios. “By acknowledging the relationships of countless loving and committed same-sex couples in the U.S. and abroad, Facebook has set a new standard of inclusion for social media.”

He added that the new status options, available to Facebook users in the U.S., Canada, Britain, France and Australia, will serve as an important reminder that legal marriage is not an option for gay couples in most states.

Only Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Washington, D.C. allow same-sex marriages. This week Hawaii becomes the seventh state to permit civil unions or similar legal recognition for gay couples.

Of course, there’s also a Facebook option to say “It’s complicated” — and that’s exactly how some users felt about the new changes. Because, for people both gay and straight, more options mean more decisions to make: What exactly is my relationship, and what should I call it?

“You go into a store and there are 27 kinds of soda, and sometimes it would be easier if there were just Coke and Pepsi,” explains Erik Rueter, who works in marketing at an educational nonprofit institution in Pittsburgh.

To Rueter, the essence of his relationship is crystal clear: He and his partner, Robb, will be together forever. “We complete each other’s sentences,” he says. “We’ll be sitting there in the nursing home, gumming up each other’s food, chasing each other in our wheelchairs.”

Two years ago, Rueter, 34, proposed to his partner on bended knee, despite the fact that in Pennsylvania they cannot marry. They’ve been engaged ever since, and that’s been his Facebook status — until Thursday, when he changed it to domestic partnership.

But Rueter is conflicted about the change.

“Part of me wants to go back to ‘engaged’ — because I still am,” he says. “Part of me wants to say ‘married,’ as in, ‘I don’t care what the law says.’ And part of me says, ‘It’s just Facebook!”’

And then ANOTHER part of Rueter tells him just how powerful and influential Facebook is, with well over 500 million users across the globe. “Just having the option to say, ‘This is what my relationship is’ is a really good thing,” he says.

It can be a good thing for some straight Facebook users, as well. Michael Stimson, a Scot who lives in Marseille, France, is not married to his partner, Izzy (short for Isabelle), but they live together and have a young son. He’s just changed his status from blank to domestic partnership.

For Stimson, it helps to clarify to other users with whom he’s chatting that he is not, well, available. “People do flirt with you on the Internet,” he says. “I like to put them in the picture a wee bit, so there’s no confusion.”

Izzy approves of his decision. “Most people that you speak with on Facebook are people you don’t know,” she says, speaking in French from home in Marseille. “This makes things more clear.”

Of course, there are no political overtones to the couple’s change in status. In the United States, though, there is a passionate debate over gay marriage. Lassiter, the campaign adviser from New Jersey, changed his status from “in a relationship” to “married” last year in an act of political defiance, he says, when the state legislature rejected a bid to recognize gay marriage.

But it just didn’t feel right, and he changed it back to “in a relationship” months later. Besides the fact that “married” wasn’t accurate, “I’m not really the marrying type,” he says. “Me and my partner have an equilibrium as things are.”

But “in a relationship” made it sound like a high-school relationship, rather than one that’s lasted a number of years.

So the new status feels better, says Lassiter. And he’s been encouraged by the positive feedback he’s gotten on just the first day from Facebook friends — including people from as far back as high school — giving him a thumbs-up.

Lassiter also thinks the change is most important for gay people — especially younger ones — living in areas of the country where their sexual orientation is less accepted than in the liberal Northeast.

“For those people, it legitimizes being in a gay relationship,” he says.

And so, maybe a social network can be something of an agent of social change.

After all, Lassiter says, “As Facebook goes, so goes the world.”

—  John Wright