A final farewell to a reluctant activist, reclusive gay hero who never got the recognition he deserved
I know you’re dead and won’t read this. But it’s because you just died that I need to write this letter. It’s the cheapest form of therapy I know.
Not that I need grief therapy, as I didn’t know you personally. To me you were a figure in newspaper photos, standing next to you will excuse the expression your partner in crime, John Geddes Lawrence. I remember you as smiling, ordinary and uncomfortable in the spotlight.
I remember you as a hero.
Fate is stranger than a Dali painting, and you couldn’t have had an inkling that September evening in Houston when the cops burst in on you and John in John’s apartment that you were on your way to the U.S. Supreme Court. I assume at that moment you were simply grappling with fear, followed by anger. Your thoughts that night in 1998 are probably still unprintable in 2006.
And how about that twist to your arrest, the fact that the police showed up because they were responding to a false report of a man with a gun! I’ve read that the false report came from a neighbor of John’s, and that he was a jealous lover of yours. Either way, this was one of those times, Tyron, where a petty emotion led to a turning point in the tide of history.
You and John could’ve pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor of sodomy and vamoosed. But you listened to the lawyers who wanted to test that Texas law even though they said your chance of victory was about the same as those who defended the Alamo. You knew your rights had been violated. You became an accidental activist.
I’m sure it was no treat to be known as the man who got caught with his britches down. Hard to bring some dignity to that, but you managed.
Traveling through Texas courts, your case wound up in the biggest court in the land. On June 26, 2003, the Supreme Court struck down laws in 13 states that outlawed gay sex. The court overruled its own lousy decision in Bowers v. Hardwick less than 20 years before.
Thanks to Lawrence v. Texas, we weren’t criminals anymore, but human beings entitled to privacy and dignity in our personal lives. As you Texans say, that made us happy as a clam at high tide.
How fitting that you weren’t some gleaming celebrity gay, but a southern African-American who sold barbecue from a street stand. You showed America a section of the LGBT community too rarely seen.
I have a confession to make. When I heard you had died at age 39, my reaction after shock was apprehension that those in the religious right who are apt to tell whoppers will claim this as proof that gays die younger. Have pity on me, Tyron, as a touch of paranoia is part of my job description.
I noticed too that you died on Sept. 11. I shouldn’t be surprised to hear someone insist that your passing on that day was a message from The Big Guy, that God is angry at an America that lifts sodomy bans, so He snatched a symbol of that event on the five-year-anniversary of a painful day in American history.
Or something like that apparently I don’t have the Falwell-esque or Phelps-ian knack for contriving an interpretation.
We in the community probably assumed we had plenty of time to honor you appropriately. We were ninnies. I apologize.
Tyron, because of you, our lives are better, and I can’t think of a happier legacy. You said you didn’t really want to be a hero. Well, you were. Thank you.
Leslie Robinson’s columns are available online at www.GeneralGayety.com
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, September 29, 2006.