Last edited: February 14, 2005

Anti-Sodomy Laws Stigmatize All Gays

Detroit News, May 22, 2000
615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, MI 48226
Fax 313-222-6417

By Deb Price / The Detroit News

When the Rev. Margarita Sanchez testified in the Puerto Rican legislature against an anti-gay proposal, a hostile legislator demanded to know whether she’s a lesbian. When Sanchez answered yes, she found herself threatened with arrest under the commonwealth’s sodomy law, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

Sanchez’s experience is but one outrageous example of how sodomy laws are used to stigmatize all gay Americans as criminals and to impede our progress toward full equality. Still on the books in 18 states, Puerto Rico and the military, these barbaric restrictions on private, consensual sex are an international embarrassment to the United States.

"The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has no business in my bedroom," stresses Sanchez, a Protestant minister in a long-term relationship.

Sodomy laws — which generally apply to everyone, straight or gay — rarely land anyone in prison. Instead, they provide a handy weapon for anti-gay extremists whenever they want to try to frighten us back into the closet, threaten us with the loss of child custody or block our legal progress. These laws taint all gays, even those in states without sodomy laws, and provide the legal and cultural underpinnings of all anti-gay discrimination.

With the help of people like Sanchez, these backward laws are headed toward extinction. Eight states have gotten rid of them in just the last eight years. Now, a new wave of six challenges looks promising:

  • Puerto Rico: The Court of Appeals is expected to rule shortly on whether the challenge filed by Sanchez, her partner and four other Puerto Ricans can proceed to trial. A lower court scoffed at the government’s claim that the statute’s existence doesn’t harm anyone.
  • Texas: Any day now, a state court of appeals will rule in a case involving two men arrested for having consensual sex at home. The constitutionality of Texas’ gay-only sodomy law is being challenged.
  • Louisiana: The state Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments over whether it should strike down the 195-year-old law that makes oral or anal sex a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
  • Virginia: Police stings in public parks led to gay men being arrested for discussing oral sex. The arrests opened the door to a broad sodomy law challenge.
  • Minnesota: Within weeks, the American Civil Liberties Union will file a suit charging that the sodomy law violates the state constitution’s privacy protections.
  • Arkansas: Several gay people, none of whom has been arrested, are challenging their state’s same-sex sodomy law for unfairly casting them as criminals. An initial ruling is expected by fall.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1986 failure to strike down sodomy laws nationwide has necessitated today’s expensive, state-by-state effort. Five states have same-sex-only sodomy laws: Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas. Sodomy laws apply to everyone in the military, Puerto Rico and 13 states: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia. (Removing the military’s sodomy ban would take an act of Congress.)

The states with the toughest maximum punishments are Idaho, five years to life; Massachusetts, 20 years; and Michigan, 15 years for first conviction, life imprisonment thereafter (which cannot be enforced in Wayne County). Three out of four American adults have engaged in oral sex, studies have found.

A free country is no place for laws that serve no legitimate purpose. Let’s get them off the books.

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