Lawrence and Tyron Garner, 365Gay.com 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
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 365Gay.com Newsmakers of
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