Last edited: February 14, 2005

Why We Should Get Rid of Sodomy Laws

Scripps Howard, December 6, 1998

By Matthew Coles, Director of the Lesbian and Gay Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union

Contrary to what many people may believe, laws that make certain kinds of private sexual intimacy a crime are no historic curiosity. They continue to play havoc with the lives of real people every day. And these days, the people are mostly lesbians and gay men. Consider these recent incidents:

In Georgia, Robin Shahar, an honors graduate of Emory Law School, lost her job with the Georgia Attorney General’s office when they learned she had a private commitment ceremony with the woman she loved. The official reason? Her relationship was "inconsistent" with Georgia’s sodomy law.

When Rev. Margarita Sanchez appeared before the Puerto Rico legislature earlier this year to testify on a bill, she was asked if she was a lesbian. When she answered "yes," a committee member said they could have her arrested because she was a criminal under the Commonwealth’s law banning "the crime against nature."

David W. had a steady job, a healthy income and a nice home near good schools for his 14-year-old son Paul. His ex-wife was in an abusive relationship with a convicted felon who beat her so badly that Paul had to call the police. But the court awarded custody to Paul’s mother, because, a judge ruled, David is gay and the state’s sodomy law made him a criminal. Even harmless but racy conversations — let alone acts in the bedroom — can result in arrests when engaged in by two men or two women.

Sodomy laws were once part of a collection of laws that prohibit every form of sexual activity except for sex aimed at reproduction as a part of marriage. There were laws against birth control, cohabitation, adultery, and fornication. None of these laws — including the sodomy laws — applied just to lesbians and gay men. They applied to everyone.

For the most part, American society has now decided that government should not tell two adults whether they can be intimate with each other, or what they are allowed to do if they are intimate.

Starting in the 1960s, many states repealed their sodomy laws or stopped using them. However, some specifically made intimacy among lesbians and gay men a crime, and others started treating their old sodomy laws as if they applied only to gay people.

Folks like Cathie Adams at the Eagle Forum may tell you that there is a moral issue at stake here. And there is: the morality of a country that was founded on the principle that all people were created equal. If the government does not belong in the bedrooms of America’s heterosexual majority, it does not belong in the bedrooms of its lesbian, gay and bisexual minority either.

Courts and legislatures have begun to agree. Earlier this year, the Rhode Island legislature repealed its sodomy law. The Nevada legislature did the same in 1993 and D.C.’s law fell the year before. [DC’s law fell a few months after the Nevada law in 1993. – rjs] Just last month, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned that state’s ban on sodomy — one year too late to save Robin Shahar’s job. In October, a court in Maryland said no to a state law banning private oral sex. The Supreme Court of Montana struck down its sodomy law last year, the courts in Tennessee struck down that state’s law in 1996, and the Kentucky court struck its law in 1992.

Despite this progress, sodomy laws are still on the books in 19 states. And just weeks ago, police charged into the bedroom of a gay couple in Texas and arrested them for sodomy.

We should have one set of rules for everyone. It’s way past time to update all of our laws.

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