Is It Curtains for the 140-Year-Old Sodomy Statute?
August 11, 2000
PO Box 49066, Austin, TX, 78765
By Jonathan David Carroll
When Danny Corteses plane landed in Texas he realized that, for the first time in
his life, he could be arrested for being himself. Cortese doesnt steal cars or rob
banks, but he is gay, and Section 21.06 of the Texas Penal Code makes homosexual conduct a
"In New York its live and let live," says Cortese, a
graduate student in sociology at the University of Texas. "Here its live
like me and Ill let you live."
Although the law is rarely enforced, its still a cloud that hangs over his life.
"Just knowing that its there is a low. Its reprehensible," he says.
"Just knowing that theres a sodomy law. ... It may not be something thats
constantly in front of your mind, but its definitely pervasive and especially [so]
knowing that sodomy is legal for straight people; it further marginalizes you."
However, a recent ruling by the Texas 14th Court of Appeals and a pending decision by
the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals may soon vaporize that cloud in Corteses life.
On June 8, a three-judge panel ruled 2-1 that the law banning anal and oral sex between
homosexuals (but allowing it between heterosexuals) violates the Equal Rights Amendment of
the Texas Constitution by singling out one group of individuals. The court made its ruling
in Lawrence and Garner v. Texas, in which two men, John Geddes Lawrence and Tyrone Garner,
were arrested for having anal sex after police broke into their bedroom on a false lead.
"Hopefully, its a signal that were one step away from overturning this
law," says Ruth Harlow, deputy legal director of Lambda Legal Defense and Education
Fund Inc., the gay rights group that represented the men. But though the decision is
significant, it only applies to the 14th Court of Appeals jurisdiction until the
Texas Criminal Court of Appeals rules on it, Harlow says. Until then, the states 13
other appellate courts can rule any way they wish on the issue.
The law was challenged in court after Harris County sheriffs deputies burst into
Lawrences Houston apartment on Sept. 17, 1998, following a false lead that there was
an intruder with a gun "going crazy" inside.
When deputies entered the apartment, the only craziness they found was Lawrence and
Garner having sex in the bedroom. According to a sworn police affidavit, "conducting
a search for the armed suspect, officers observed the defendant engaged in deviate sexual
conduct, namely, anal sex, with another man."
Lawrence and Garner were arrested and jailed on charges of "deviant
homosexual" conduct a class C misdemeanor. The two spent the night in jail and
were released on bail the next day. Both were fined $200 for breaking Texas sodomy
law. They both pleaded no contest before a justice of the peace and, later, in a Harris
County Criminal Court-at-Law, which enabled them to challenge the laws
constitutionality. The appeals courts ruling effectively dismissed the complaints
filed against them.
Harris Co. District Attorney John B. Holmes Jr. says his office will appeal the
courts decision. When contacted by telephone recently, Holmes said he did not wish
to discuss the case, explaining that he does not discuss cases that are under litigation.
When asked why, after talking to numerous other reporters, he no longer wanted to discuss
the matter, Holmes simply hung up.
Holmes appeal will go the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and most likely
wont be reviewed until next year. At that point, the court will have at least two
new justices, because two of its conservative justices, Republicans Michael McCormick and
Steve Mansfield, do not plan to run for re-election. Republican Charles Holcomb, a former
appeals court judge from Tyler, will likely take Mansfields spot; he has no
Democratic opponent, but will face Libertarian Rife Scott in November. Justice Sharon
Keller is resigning her seat in a bid to replace McCormick as presiding judge of the
all-Republican court; she faces Democrat Bill Vance in November. And Republican Barbara
Parker Hervey, a San Antonio prosecutor, is up against Democrat William Barr for
But even if the GOP wins all those races, which Houston appellate attorney and legal
analyst Brian Wice believes is likely considering the recent history of judicial elections
in Texas, the court could become more moderate than it has been in recent years.
"Youre going to have a different lineup," says Wice. "The judges will
be infinitely more moderate than their predecessors."
Although Wice and other legal analysts interviewed for this story didnt want to
speculate on the outcome of this particular case, gay and lesbian rights activists were
hopeful that the law would be overturned once and for all. "Were very excited
by it," says Elizabeth Brenner, a field coordinator for the Austin-based Lesbian/Gay
Rights Lobby of Texas (LGRL). "Its an exciting ruling, and hopefully
theyll take a look at the law and see how archaic it really is."
Harlow is similarly optimistic. "Were hoping for an open-minded
hearing," she says. "Its important to remember that [what the law] does is
make an act criminal for some people, but not for all. Its not fair. It
And even though the Texas sodomy law is rarely enforced in the way in which it was with
Garner and Lawrence, many believe it is used to discriminate against gays and lesbians.
"A lot of people have a misinformed attitude about the [sodomy] law," says Steve
Labinski, president of the Log Cabin Republicans of Texas. "They think because
its a class C misdemeanor that its meaningless. It is used to justify
discrimination. Thats why its so important that its repealed."
During last years legislative session, the sodomy law was invoked by legislators
who tried to pass a bill that would have prevented gays and lesbians from adopting and
The sodomy statute became part of the Texas Penal Code in 1860. Article 342 of the code
stated that "Whoever commits with mankind or beast the abominable and detestable
crime against nature shall be confined in the penitentiary for not less than five nor more
than fifteen years."
At the close of the century, legislators became less bashful and specifically outlawed
sodomy for both straight and gay couples. As it had previously, the sodomy statute also
included bestiality. According to the 1895 Texas Penal Code, any person who engaged in
sodomy acted "unlawfully, wickedly, diabolically and against the order of
The statute went through minor changes through the years until 1943, when it was
broadened to outlaw oral and anal sex between straight couples, gay couples, and "man
and beast." According the 1943 Texas Penal Code, "Whoever has carnal copulation
with a beast, or in an opening of the body except sexual parts, with another human being,
or whoever shall use his mouth on the sexual parts of another human being for the purpose
of having carnal copulation, or who shall voluntarily permit the use of his own sexual
parts in a lewd or lascivious manner by any minor, shall be guilty of sodomy and upon
conviction thereof shall be deemed guilty of a felony, and shall be confined in the
penitentiary for not less than two nor more than fifteen years."
In 1974, the Texas Legislature freed heterosexual couples in their bedrooms from the
constraints of the sodomy law, but the same freedom was not given to gay and lesbian
couples. Section 21.06, the "homosexual conduct" statute, was passed that year,
stating that "A person commits an offense if he engages in deviate sexual intercourse
[defined elsewhere as "any contact between any part of the genitals of one person and
the mouth or anus of another person"] with another individual of the same sex."
In 1993, the issue came to light again with the revision of the Texas Penal Code, but
legislators passed on the opportunity to remove it. During the revision, the Punishment
Standards Commission recommended removing from the code laws that prohibited everything
from writing hot checks and stiffing taxi cab drivers to homosexual conduct. The new Texas
Penal Code, which passed the Senate without the homosexual conduct statute, sparked a
bitter debate when it was introduced into the states lower chamber. "It ran
into a wall and couldnt get out of the House," says Gary Kansteiner, senior
counsel for the Texas Legislative Council.
On the floor of the house, a now-legendary exchange took place between conservative
Rep. Warren Chisum (R-Pampa) and Rep. Debra Danburg (D-Houston). The exchange was provoked
after Chisum introduced an amendment to the penal code outlawing sodomy regardless of
"Mr. Chisum, youre trying to make it criminal even between the opposite sex,
even if they are married?" Danburg asked.
"Especially if they are married," he replied. "I cant believe
anyone would do that if they were married."
Their squabble escalated.
"If my husband and I were having sex and it touched my anus, do I need to go turn
myself in to some health official?" Danburg asked.
"I suggest your husband goes to see a doctor about his aim," Chisum replied.
Chisums amendment failed, but the ban on homosexual conduct was restored and
approved by the House. A conference committee adopted the House version after six
deadlocked votes on the issue. "Its a pretty up-and-down issue without a lot of
room for compromise," notes Kansteiner.
Since the homosexual conduct statute was restored seven years ago, efforts to get it
taken out of the law have continued. Both Danburg and Rep. Glen Maxey (D-Austin) have
repeatedly filed bills to remove it from the penal code. But response from other members
of the House has been cool. Neither representative has been able to garner enough support
to bring a bill to remove the statute to the House floor for a vote.
"Theres a lot of Texas senators and representatives that come from places
where being gay doesnt fly back home," Danburg said. "Its
frustrating because there are so many people who believe everyone should be part of the
government, but the mention of homosexuality makes them throw all their goodwill out the
window. ... Its inappropriate and sad."
Sodomy laws are not unique to Texas. Until the 1960s, all 50 states had laws outlawing
anal and oral sex. These laws began to be repealed and stricken down by the courts in a
growing number of states in the 1960s. Today, 13 states have sodomy laws that apply to
both heterosexual and homosexual couples: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana,
Michigan, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Utah, and Virginia. Five
more have sodomy laws that apply only to same-sex couples: Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma,
Missouri, and Texas.
They Fought the Law
Texas gay rights activists have worked for years to overturn the sodomy law. In his
South Austin apartment, Austin attorney and gay activist Tom Doyal talks about his
involvement in the gay communitys repeated attempts to get the law overturned.
"To me, it never mattered if we won or lost; we just had to keep fighting,"
Doyal says. "Otherwise, we were cooperating in our own oppression. And it was a great
opportunity to educate the public and raise funds for the Texas Human Rights Foundation.
There were lots of reasons to do it win, lose, or draw."
The law was first seriously challenged in federal court in 1979, by Dallas gay rights
activist Don Baker. U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer struck down the law, but it was
reinstated on appeal by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That decision was backed by
a 1986 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hardwick v. Bower. In that case, a Georgia
man challenged his states sodomy law, but the court sided with the state,
essentially giving states the right to regulate sexual behavior.
In Texas, gay rights activists decided to fight back against the ruling by putting
together a case that would challenge the law as a violation of privacy and also of the
states Equal Rights Amendment. "We decided to see what we could do rather than
be stymied forever by Bower v. Hardwick," Doyal says.
Linda Morales, an activist for gay and lesbian causes, filed suit against the state
along with four other plaintiffs, alleging that the sodomy law affected their
relationships with their families and stigmatized them as criminals. "It was a test
case to see how far we could get it through the state court system," Doyal says.
In 1992, the Texas Third Court of Appeals agreed with Morales and voted 3-0 to strike
down the sodomy law. While the case was being appealed, another suit challenging the
sodomy law was filed.
Mica England sued the city of Dallas in an Austin state district court when she
wasnt allowed to apply for a job with the Dallas Police Department because she was a
lesbian. The judge in Englands case ruled that the police departments practice
of screening applicants for sexual orientation was unconstitutional. An appeals court
agreed, but the city lost its chance to have the law overturned when it missed the
deadline to file for an appeal and the Texas Supreme Court was unable to hear the case.
"We were stunned because the city of Dallas filed no appeal," Doyal says.
"We were trying to figure out what tricks they were playing on us. But in fact, they
just fucked up."
Then in 1994, the Morales case came before the Texas Supreme Court, but the court
refused to hear it because none of the plaintiffs had been legally prosecuted. After that,
the legality of the sodomy law became unclear. Although both sides claimed victory, the
England case only restricted bias in employment. It did not successfully overturn the
"The waters were considerably muddied," Doyal says. But he believes Lawrence
and Gardners case may be the one "that will get this sucker declared
If the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturns the sodomy law, gay men and women may
never have to fear that their privacy will be invaded by the government again. Says
Harlow: "We never want the government crashing into peoples bedrooms like they
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