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.

—  admin

Remembering Those Who Have Served

This Veteran’s Day all of us here at the Human Rights Campaign would like to thank veterans for all that they have done, and continue to do for our nation. During this day of remembrance, let us also take a moment to honor those warriors who are no longer with us. They gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country, and we owe them each an enormous debt of gratitude.

Let us not forget those who are currently serving overseas. Our thoughts and wishes are with them and with their families back here at home.

As a former Army Staff Sergeant, I would like to personally thank all of my brothers- and sisters-in-arms for their service. It is you who supported me to through the good times and bad of eight years in the U.S. Army. This will be my first Veteran’s Day outside of the military, but I can rest easy knowing that our forces are in the capable hands of those who continue to serve. From me to you, and with the support my colleagues here at HRC, your hard work and dedication are greatly appreciated.

The work we do here to improve the lives of LGBT Americans would not be possible without the service and sacrifice of our brave men and women in uniform. We sincerely hope that everyone will take some time today to thank a veteran for all that they have done.

With the Senate returning to wrap up the 111th Congress next week, HRC will continue to push the Senate to make “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”– the discriminatory law that continues to harm our nation’s military– a thing of the past.

From all of us here at HRC to those who have served, and those who continue to serve: Thank you.


Human Rights Campaign | HRC Back Story

—  admin

Remembering The Ariston Baths, New York’s First Anti-Gay Raid

Thebathhouse

New York City gay bar The Stonewall Inn received a lot of attention this week, after two men attacked one of its patrons. It was an astonishing story, and few could believe something reportedly homophobic could go down at the bar, known as the epicenter for a 1969 revolt against anti-gay police raids. Those protests, of course, helped spark the modern gay right movement, cementing Stonewall’s place in history.

While Stonewall deserves plenty of recognition for its pivotal role as the rebellion’s backdrop, it wasn’t the first New York City establishment to be raided over its patrons’ sexuality. That, um, honor goes toraid the Ariston Bathhouse, where police detained 60 men, and arrested 14, in a February, 21, 1903 sting, all the while referring to suspects as “maude” and “indignant lady.”

The New York Times reported at the time, “[Inspector Brooks said evidence has been gathered for week against the place and that the conduct of some of the frequenters of the establishment was questionable." Transcripts from the subsequent  trials illuminate the horror and hilarity of homophobia in early New York.

I recently made my way to John Jay Criminal College's Lloyd Sealy Library in New York City to take a look at the microfilmed court transcripts, most of which are from the early spring of 1903.  The documents are at times amusing in their detail. Here, for example, is an exchange between a prosecutor and one of the undercover police dispatched to the bath house, once located at 55th and Broadway, and one of the city's man bathhouses at the time.

Q: What did you notice the defendant do?
A: He walked over to the couch that the man Walter Bennett was lying on... And he placed his penis in the anus of the man Walter Bennett, and kept it there for a short time.
Q: Now, did you notice the state of the defendant's genital organ or penis, at the time that, as you say, he placed it in the anus of the man Walter Bennett?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: In what state was it?
A: It was in a state of erection.
Q: And what, if anything, did he do to Bennett other than that act?
A: Oh, he laid down, after he withdrew his penis from -
Q: Well, after he withdrew his penis, did you notice the penis of the defendant?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: And in what condition was the penis of the defendant, after he had withdrawn it from the anus of Bennett?
A: In a state of collapse.

This exchange illustrates the neurotic specificity Americans had about sexuality, particularly homosexuality, at the dawn of the 20th century, only 107-years ago. Desire and sex had been systematically broken down, rationalized into "good" and "bad," and picked apart from every angle. Oral sex becomes this: "[He] took the penis of he defendant in his mouth and made indecent motions.”

While cultural evolution allows us to laugh at the prosecutorial analysis, the court’s overall attitude is anything but funny. The judge had no problem voicing his distaste over the case, and wrote in his opinion:

We cannot disguise the fact that any reference to the testimony in the case must necessarily be very unpleasant and disagreeable. It affects the very self respect for ourselves and regard for humanity. It brings to the mind a species of horror to think that any person, any human being endowed with intelligence, with reason, would be guilty of such horrible practices…

Even one of the defense attorneys claimed the details were “revolting:” “The mere statement of the crime charged against the defendant is liable to carry with it a certain revulsion off feelings that may be reasonably entertained by every man who has a decent regard for the proprieties and manliness of his sex.”

The prosecutors were quite persuasive: of the twelve men put on trial, seven received multiple years in prison. There were no protests, no marches to oppose the decision. The men were simply ushered off to jail, victims of early America’s widespread homophobia, and forgotten by history.

Surely we’ve come a long way since the 1903 Ariston Trials. As the Stonewall attack and other homophobic incidents show, however, there’s still more work to be done before the Ariston judge’s 1903 opinion on homosexuality has been eradicated entirely.

Image Note: This is not the Ariston Bathhouse. Rather, it’s another bathhouse, located on Bowery, in the year 1884, less than two decades after the word “homosexual” was first used.


Towleroad News #gay

—  John Wright