Activists Back Challenge To Texas Anti-Gay Laws
November 17, 1998
1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL
By Andrew Gumbel
Two men are due to be arraigned for sodomy in Houston, Texas on Friday, in a case that
has provoked outrage among gay groups across the country. The fact that homosexual acts
between consenting adults in private are still outlawed in Texas is one cause of the
furore. But what has triggered it at this particular time are the circumstances of the
On 17 September -- in an incident that has only just come to wider notice -- Houston
police burst into a suburban private apartment. They expected to find an intruder
"going crazy" with a gun, as the neighbour who called them out had described.
Instead, they found two men allegedly having sex in their own bedroom.
The informant, who appeared to have a grudge against gays, was charged with filing a
false report and sentenced to 15 days in jail. But John Geddes Lawrence, 55, and Tyrone
Garner, 31, were arrested too, under Texas's 119-year-old sodomy law, and held in custody
for several hours before being released on bail.
Gay groups across the country are rallying around the two accused. "It is just
unbelievable that in 1998 this sort of arrest could happen," said a lawyer for the
two men, Mitchell Katine. "It is a terrible experience for any of us to be arrested
for what we do in the privacy of our own home with a consenting adult."
Even by the standards of Texas, one of 22 US states with anti-sodomy laws on its
statute books and one of only six with legislation specifically directed against
homosexuals, this has been an unusual case. There have been only a handful of prosecutions
in the past 30 years.
But popular and political support for the anti-sodomy laws in such a conservative
southern state remain strong. The state legislature agreed five years ago that Texas's
anti-sodomy laws violated privacy norms, but scrapped them only for heterosexual couples.
When they appear before the Justice of the Peace, Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Garner will have
the option to pay a $500 (£310) fine and close the case. But several advocacy groups, as
well as the local prosecutor's office, hope they will contest the charges so that their
case can be used to throw the statute off the books.
"The case may well be a landmark test of the right to privacy in American
law," the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission said. Gay groups are
calling for financial support, should the case turn into a protracted battle.
Several previous attempts to challenge the Texas anti-sodomy law have failed for lack
of a criminal case to take to the superior courts. Mica England, a lesbian who was turned
down for a job with the Dallas police department on the ground that a woman committing
crimes in her private life could not enforce the law in public, won a discrimination
lawsuit in 1994 but failed to persuade the state Supreme Court that the anti-gay law was
"I've always said the best way to get rid of a bad law is to enforce it,"
District Attorney John Holmes said, explaining why he was going ahead with the case
against Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Garner. He wants to give the case the chance to climb far
enough through the system for the law to be challenged.
In 1986, the US Supreme Court upheld Georgia's sodomy laws, arguing that the right to
privacy did not extend to homosexual acts. But the nine-member court was split 5-4 and one
of the justices who voted in favour of the anti- sodomy laws, the late Lewis Powell, later
said he had been wrong.
[Home] [News] [Texas]