Finally, Dignity and Respect—but at Such a Cost
Angeles Times, June 29, 2003
Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053
Fax: 213-237-7679 or 213-237-5319
By John Rechy
In striking down a Texas law that made consensual sex in
private between members of the same sex a criminal act, Justice Anthony M.
Kennedy wrote that it “demeans the lives of homosexual persons entitled to
respect for their private lives.” By emphasizing the word “respect,”
Kennedy was not only upholding the right of privacy, he was asserting human
The ruling deserves the celebratory rallies being held
throughout the country. But for some it will be difficult to feel grateful.
That the matter came up is disgraceful to all concepts of decency. For gay
veterans of not-too-distant wars for equal rights, the grand decision cannot
help but stir memories of outrages survived.
Thirty years ago, incidents of violence against gay men
were common, and it was almost always the gay man who was deemed guilty. Into
the ‘70s, people risked arrest by being in a gay bar. A scurrilous Hollywood
newspaper of the time frequently ran stories headlining the number of
“queers” arrested in a bar. At any moment a bar would be flooded with
light from a squad car. A bullhorn ordered all “queers” to march out in a
single line, ostensibly to be checked for ID. The men would be insulted,
mauled, in some instances beaten. Chosen arbitrarily, as many men as fitted
into a squad car or wagon were taken to “headquarters for questioning.”
Protest would elicit a powerful threat: Anyone suspected
of whatever the police claimed—including loitering—might be held, without
charges, for 48 hours, released and then held again for as long.
Entrapment was rampant: A vice cop might court or accept
an invitation for sex at someone’s home and then make an arrest.
Plainclothes cops sat in cars outside gay gathering places in order to trail
men leaving together. They waited, then pushed their way into private homes,
just as—significantly—years later, the defendants in the Texas case, John
Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Garner, would be arrested in Lawrence’s home.
Some men went to prison: A sentence of up to five years
It was illegal for members of the same sex to dance
together (heterosexual women exempted). A “private” club in Topanga Canyon
adopted a system of lights to signal a hostile presence. Lights would blink,
and gay men would shift partners, dancing with lesbians. Fledgling political
groups, like the Mattachine Society, met in secret, blinds drawn. Their
newsletters were confiscated by the post office, although they had no erotic
Countless lives were destroyed by such arrests. Men lost
their jobs, were ostracized, forced to register for life as “sex
offenders,” mandated to stay away from any place catering to “perverts,”
threatened with electric shock treatment. A man arrested in Twentynine Palms
after a plainclothes cop struck up a conversation that led to a mutual
agreement to go to a motel was sentenced to six months in jail, where he
remained incommunicado. After he managed to get out—the judge claiming he
was “insane” and needed to be scrutinized—he became a recluse, petrified
for life by the incident.
In 1973, California finally repealed its anti-sodomy
laws. But still, in 1977, driving home from UCLA in the early evening, I saw
muggers fleeing from the man they had assaulted on the street. I drove the
bleeding man to the police station so that a squad car would be sent to the
area. The bruised man—clearly gay—was returning home with groceries when
attacked. At the station, the sergeant studied him after I had recounted what
I had seen, and asked him, “What did you try to do with those guys?”
Now, on the memorable day of June 25, 2003, in decent,
moving words, Justice Kennedy and those who joined him in effect denounced
those past horrors as inconsistent with the respect and dignity asserted. Many
will rightly celebrate the decision as an unqualified victory—and those who
brought it about are heroic.
Without in any way belittling the decency of the justices
in their brave opinion, some might view the decision as a vastly imperfect
apology for the many lives devastated by cruel laws that made possible the
myriad humiliations of gay people, the verbal assaults and screams of
“faggot!”—the muggings, the suicides, the murders—all occurring even
during this time of victory. The flagrant dissent by Justice Antonin Scalia
and two of his colleagues—in an effort to uphold the Texas law—will help
to keep fertile the atmosphere of hatred that allowed three men to mangle
Trevor Broudy in West Hollywood and allowed Matthew Shepherd to be butchered
And so the battles continue.
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