Last edited: May 02, 2004

John Lawrence and Tyron Garner, Newsmakers of 2003 Newscenter, December 20, 2003

By Jack Siu

John Lawrence and Tyron Garner could be called accidental activists. But, they are as important to LGBT civil rights as Rosa Parks is to the civil rights of African Americans. And, like Parks, Lawrence and Garner did not go looking to make history. It found them.

Their story begins on a warm September evening in 1998. Lawrence and Garner were in Lawrence’s Houston apartment, doing what millions of other American’s were doing that night, having sex.

A nosey troublesome neighbor who had been harassing them called police, claiming there was a break-in or possible domestic dispute in Lawrence’s home. When officers arrived, no sounds seemed to be coming from the apartment, so they broke through the door, and discovered the couple in the midst of sex.

The two men were arrested under the Texas “Homosexual Conduct Law”, were jailed, fined, and labeled as sex offenders. The case attracted relatively little attention at the time, and they declined through their attorneys to be interviewed. But from the start, they felt their arrest was unfair and vowed to fight.

Garner said in court in 1998 that he hoped the law would change and, “I feel like my civil rights were violated and I wasn’t doing anything wrong.” Lawrence called his arrest “sort of Gestapo.”

The case wound through appeals until it finally came before the US Supreme Court this year.

“These are people who were arrested in their bedroom,” said Patricia Logue, an attorney with the Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund, which handled the case. “They never chose to have that invasion of privacy. This is something they believe in, of course, but it’s not a battle they chose.”

On June 26, 2003 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5 to 3 with Justice O’Connor concurring with the majority that Texas’s “Homosexual Conduct” law is unconstitutional. Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion.

The ruling effectively strikes down the sodomy laws in every state that still had them, 13 in all,—but its impact is even broader.

The decision has become a powerful tool for gay people in all 50 states where gay men and lesbians continue fighting to be treated equally. Sodomy laws criminalized oral and anal sex by consenting gay couples and in some states heterosexual couples but was used almost exclusively to justify discrimination against lesbians and gay men.

The Supreme Court heard two constitutional issues in Lambda Legal’s case—whether the Texas law violates the Constitution’s right to privacy, and also whether it violates the Constitution’s guarantee that all Americans will be treated equally under the law. The ruling focused on the first argument and establishes, for the first time, that lesbians and gay men have fundamental privacy rights

The decision overturned the Supreme Court’s devastating 1986 ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick. In that decision—which was laced with anti-gay language and has been used against gay people in most civil rights cases since—the court upheld Georgia’s sodomy law in a case brought by a man who was arrested while having consensual sex in his home with another man.

In the majority opinion Justice Kennedy wrote, “Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today.” The opinion also says, “When sexuality finds overt expression in intimate conduct with another person, the conduct can be but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring. The liberty protected by the Constitution allows homosexual persons the right to make this choice.”

The ruling closed the door on an era of intolerance and ushered in a new era of respect and equal treatment for gay Americans and recognizes that love, sexuality and family play the same role in gay people’s lives as they do for everyone else.

These days Lawrence and Garner keep a low profile, but their case is the most important civil rights decision handed down by the court in a generation, and for that they are the Newsmakers of 2003.

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