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How Anti-Sodomy Laws Were Ruled Unconstitutional Even Though There Was No Sodomy

Sodomy laws, designed to prevent consensual activity between same-sex individuals, were present in most states in America throughout the 20th Century. As late as 1986 the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Georgia sodomy law in the case of Bowers v. Hardwick. It took 17 more years before the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 ruling, struck down a Texas sodomy law on the grounds that it violated due process. As a result of this decision, same-sex sexual activity could not be proscribed in any state in America.

Now we learn that the plaintiffs in that landmark 2003 case of Lawrence v. Texas, were neither a couple nor engaged in any intimate sexual activity. In fact, they were 15 feet apart when the police raided Lawrence’s Houston apartment according to a new book:

In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that sodomy laws — which had come to target gay sex exclusively — were unconstitutional. But who was Lawrence? The mythos around the case has always portrayed a loving same-sex couple whose privacy was violated, but Dale Carpenter’s new book “Flagrant Conduct” reveals that the actual backstory is something completely different. Dahlia Lithwick explains in her profile of the book for The New Yorker that John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Garner weren’t even a couple and — despite their arrest — never even had sex:

The legal opportunity depended, however, upon persuading the defendants to go along with an unusual strategy. High-powered lawyers would represent Lawrence and Garner, as long as they agreed to stop saying they weren’t guilty and instead entered a “no contest” plea. By doing so, the two were promised relative personal privacy, and given a chance to become a part of gay-civil-rights history. The cause was greater than the facts themselves. Lawrence and Garner understood that they were being asked to keep the dirty secret that there was no dirty secret.

That’s the punch line: the case that affirmed the right of gay couples to have consensual sex in private spaces seems to have involved two men who were neither a couple nor having sex. In order to appeal to the conservative Justices on the high court, the story of a booze-soaked quarrel was repackaged as a love story. Nobody had to know that the gay-rights case of the century was actually about three or four men getting drunk in front of a television in a Harris County apartment decorated with bad James Dean erotica.

What’s compelling about this is that the principle of the case superseded the actual facts. It is true that Lawrence and Garner were charged with violating Texas’ sodomy law, but after that point, the case became entirely about what the law symbolized as opposed to how it was actually enforced. Cultural exposure to gays and lesbians had advanced enough by 2003 such that they could be seen for the lives they lead and the relationships they commit to, as opposed to just the immoral “ick” for the kind of sex they have. The true backstory may seem to undermine the validity of the case, but in reality it strengthens its significance. The decision in Lawrence v. Texas was not just a victory for gay rights, but an important milestone for the cultural acceptance of same-sex families in communities across our nation.


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