Last edited: February 14, 2005

In Many States, Sodomy Laws Make Gays Criminals

Philadelphia Daily News, December 8, 1998
400 N. Broad St., Philadelphia, PA 19101
Fax: 215-854-5691

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 you’re gay. The Georgia Supreme Court last month overturned that state’s 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 liberty."

It’s a ruling with irony. Georgia is home to the most significant legal defeat the gay community has experienced – the U.S. Supreme Court’s 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 Georgia’s was before last month’s 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, disagreed:

"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."

It’s not as though jailhouses are full of people convicted under sodomy laws, Scarborough noted, but such persecution hasn’t 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 that’s always threatening to rain on a gay or lesbian litigant," Scarborough said. "It doesn’t 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

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