In Many States, Sodomy Laws Make Gays Criminals
Philadelphia Daily News,
December 8, 1998
400 N. Broad St., Philadelphia, PA 19101
By Debbie Woodell
It seems like a forgotten frontier in the gay-rights movement, but in nearly half the
states in this country, it is still illegal to engage in certain sexual acts.
While gay-rights organizations have grabbed headlines in fights over marriage,
protection of jobs and other civil rights, and even military service, another fight goes
on to overturn the laws that crimninalize anal and oral sex.
Now, one more state is a bit safer if youre gay. The Georgia Supreme Court last
month overturned that states 182-year-old sodomy law, ruling 6-1 that it violated
privacy rights: "Adults who withdraw from the public gaze to engage in private
consensual sexual behavior are exercising a right embraced within the right of personal
Its a ruling with irony. Georgia is home to the most significant legal defeat the
gay community has experienced the U.S. Supreme Courts 1986 Bowers vs.
Hardwick ruling that upheld the sodomy law as constitutional. Two years ago, the Georgia
high court upheld the law once more. But this time, in a case involving a heterosexual
man, the court struck down the entire law as unconstitutional.
Five states still ban sodomy only between same-sex partners Texas, Arkansas,
Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri. Another 13 have sodomy laws aimed at both homosexual and
heterosexual partners, as Georgias was before last months ruling.
This case involved an incident of sodomy between a man and his 17-year- old niece, who
is over the age of consent in that state.
One of the key players in the appeal, the gay-rights legal advocacy organization Lambda
Legal Defense and Education Fund, weighed their concerns about the specific circumstances
of the case and the concerns over allegations of forced sexual relations. But since the
facts clearly showed that the sex had been consensual as the jury decided in
acquitting Powell Lambda joined the appeal.
Some critics said Lambda only took advantage of a heterosexual case to jump on the
bandwagon, but Stephen R. Scarborough, a Lambda lawyer who worked on the appeal,
"The statute does apply to everybody and is constitutionally offensive to
everybody. Certainly, this was a guy whose privacy rights had been violated, and
vindicating those rights would help . . . the people that we represent and work for."
Its not as though jailhouses are full of people convicted under sodomy laws,
Scarborough noted, but such persecution hasnt gone away, either.
However, the major danger of sodomy laws is how they can taint us and stigmatize our
lives in other ways, what Scarborough called the laws "sly invocation."
"Sodomy laws are a central tool of our oppression . . . the big, dark cloud in the
sky thats always threatening to rain on a gay or lesbian litigant," Scarborough
said. "It doesnt matter what the case is."
That litigant might be the man who feels he was wrongly fired or the woman seeking
custody of her children after a divorce. Those people can be labeled as lawbreakers.
"While there are laws on the books," Scarborough acknowledged, "it is at
least technically true that we are engaged in criminal conduct."
Until we get these archaic laws off the books, in some places sadly we
are still criminals.
Debbie Woodell is a Daily News sports desk editor. Her column appears here every other
Tuesday. Send e-mail to email@example.com.
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