Activists Hope to Reverse Anti-Gay Ruling
July 30, 2001
615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, MI 48226
By Deb Price
For the first decade after the U.S. Supreme Courts devastatingly
anti-gay Bowers v. Hardwick ruling in 1986, gay-rights attorneys pretty much
felt like they were tiptoeing around in the legal equivalent of a house of
Every time they dared open a door whether in trying to help a lesbian
mom regain custody or a gay applicant rejected as a police officer they
feared the ferocious monster thats come to be known simply as Hardwick
would pop out, as state and federal judges frequently cited that anti-sodomy
ruling as an excuse for a wide range of anti-gay decisions.
This summer marks the 15th anniversary of the Hardwick ruling, in which
Justice Byron White contemptuously branded as "facetious" the
argument that gay Americans have a constitutional right to privacy. While the
Hardwick legal precedent is hardly dead, its a shadow of its former self,
not too far from being taken off the homophobic respirator that enables it to
live on to be used for occasional outbursts by mean-spirited judges.
And thankfully, as is often true of monsters victims, the gay community
has transformed much of the searing pain felt in the years immediately after
the ruling into powerful, self-protective weapons.
"While on the one hand, it would have been great to have gotten all
the sodomy laws in the country struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, this has
forced us to get more organized, to go into state courts to educate a lot of
judges," observes Arthur Leonard, author of the superlative Sexuality and
"It forced us to become experts on state constitutional law with
excellent results in that we knocked down a lot of sodomy laws in state courts
in the years since Hardwick," says Leonard, praising several state
legislatures as well for dumping sodomy laws.
When Hardwick was handed down, 24 states, the District of Columbia and the
military still had anti-sodomy laws, most of them targeting any couple
engaging in oral or anal sex. Now only 17 states and the military still
criminalize sodomy; in five states, those laws apply only to gay sex. And that
overall number is dwindling fast: In Minnesota, a 30-day appeal period of a
favorable ruling ends soon, and an earlier victory in Arkansas is likely to be
affirmed. Legal experts debate the viability of sodomy laws in Michigan,
Montana and Missouri.
That leaves a dozen backward states, mostly in the South. Challenges are
pending in Texas and Arkansas. A few states will likely cling to sodomy laws
for years. Ultimately, gay-rights lawyers hope to persuade the Supreme Court
to reverse Hardwick. Until then, the existence of sodomy laws anywhere
stigmatizes gay Americans everywhere.
This summer is also a time to celebrate the fifth birthday of Romer v.
Evans. In that landmark decision, the Supreme Court wrapped gay Americans in
the Constitutions protective embrace. While the remarkable rulings reach
is still unclear, it helped deaden Hardwicks sting.
"The main value of Romer has been atmospheric. It shifted the judicial
climate," notes attorney Shannon Minter of the National Center for
Lesbian Rights. "In Romer, you had the Supreme Court without blanching
referring to gay people as part of the citizenry entitled to equal treatment
Romer opened a promising path of gay-rights litigation, one relying on the
Constitutions equal protection promises. The rulings pricelessness was
underscored when the Vermont Supreme Court mentioned Romer when prodding the
state legislature to give coupled gay Vermonters all the state rights and
responsibilities of marriage.
"Hardwick and Romer are emblematic of the schizophrenia in this
country right now," observes attorney Steve Scarborough of the Lambda
Legal Defense and Education Fund. "...Something is going to have to give.
I predict Hardwick is going to fall."
Tiptoeing far less these days, gay-rights attorneys are rightly filled with
hope about the years ahead.
- Deb Prices column is published on Monday. She be contacted at (202)
662-7370 or email@example.com. Write letters to firstname.lastname@example.org
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