The US Supreme Court’s 2003 Lawrence v. Texas ruling not only overturned state sodomy laws, but also provided a foundation for further advancement of GLBT civil rights. The 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision, in which the high court upheld Georgia’s sodomy law, outraged the queer community, spurring renewed activism. Despite the ruling, several states repealed their sodomy statutes over the next decade-and-a-half, but laws in the remaining 13 states—mostly in the South—remained stubbornly in place.
The plaintiffs in Lawrence v. Texas were unlikely gay-rights poster boys. John Geddes Lawrence, a white medical technologist, then age 55, and Tyron Garner, an unemployed black man 24 years his junior, were not a steady couple. Neither previously had been involved in GLBT activism.
On the night of September 17, 1998, the Harris County Sheriff’s Department received a call from Robert Eubanks, who apparently was Garner’s current boyfriend and Lawrence’s ex-lover, reporting a man with a gun in Lawrence’s Houston apartment. Four deputies arrived at the apartment with guns drawn. Two claimed they saw Lawrence and Garner having anal sex. The men were arrested, convicted of misdemeanor “deviate sexual intercourse,” and held in jail overnight.
Local gay activist and bartender Lane Lewis heard about the case from a bar patron who was a closeted member of the county judicial staff. Lewis persuaded Lawrence and Garner to challenge the law, and secured an attorney, Mitchell Katine, who requested assistance from the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund (LLDEF), a national GLBT legal advocacy group.
Lawrence and Garner pleaded not guilty (later changed to no contest), and were fined $125. Their lawyers appealed, arguing the sodomy law violated their rights to liberty and privacy, as well as to equal protection, because Texas was one of the few states with a law that applied only to homosexuals. In March 2000, the Texas Court of Appeals upheld the law by a 7-2 margin, citing the Bowers precedent. LLDEF appealed to the US Supreme Court, and the case was argued in March 2003.
On June 26, 2003, the high court struck down the Texas sodomy law by a 6-3 margin, ruling that it violated the 14th Amendment’s due process right to liberty.
In his majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “The state cannot demean their [the plaintiffs’] existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime.”
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, part of the Bowers majority in 1986, held that the Texas law should be overturned on equality grounds, because it applied only to homosexuals.
Writing for the dissenting minority, Justice Antonin Scalia opined that the court had “taken sides in the culture war.” He further suggested the ruling would invalidate all sex laws that were based on moral disapproval.
Despite conservative fears of a slippery slope to moral anarchy, the Lawrence decision did not invalidate laws concerning public, underage, nonconsensual, or commercial sex. As well, Kennedy was careful not to include government recognition of same-sex marriage in his opinion.
But the ruling did fundamentally affect the legal status of GLBT people, removing the rationale that they do not deserve liberty or equality because they are presumed to be law-breakers.
Commenting on the verdict, LLDEF’s Ruth Harlow said, “This is a giant leap forward to a day where we are no longer branded as criminals.”
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication, or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.