Virginia Sodomy Law Challenged
September 15, 2000
SUMMARY: Gay men caught in an oral sex solicitation sting are in a Virginia appeals
court to fight the discriminatory application of a law thats broken "a million
times a night."
The Virginia Court of Appeals on September 12 heard oral arguments in a challenge to
the states venerable "crimes against nature" law, which punishes oral sex
-- or "soliciting" it -- as a felony punishable by five years imprisonment, even
if committed in private between consenting adults, even if theyre married. But
activists believe the law is selectively enforced against gay men, and the case at hand is
a 1998 police "sting" operation in Roanokes Wasena Park, with ten of the
eighteen men arrested there acting as appellants. A ruling is expected before the year
Despite the Appeals Courts willingness to hear the case -- and its rejected
similar challenges in the past -- the mens attorney Sam Garrison had to devote much
of the hearing to establishing their standing to challenge the law. He did that based on
violation of First Amendment free speech rights, supported with a police officers
testimony that he would be duty-bound to arrest two adults he overheard arranging to go
engage in oral sex in private. But the key to Garrisons approach is his assertion
that, "The evidence in this case, which the court cannot ignore, is replete with
statements by people -- men, women, married, unmarried, straight, gay -- that they engage
in this conduct." He charged that the law is "broken a million times a night in
One member of the three-judge panel specifically asked the states Senior
Assistant Attorney General John McLees, whos tasked with defending the law, if the
state were willing to concede it would be unconstitutional to use the charge against a
married couple acting in private. But McLees sidestepped the question, responding that it
was not the issue before the court. He urged the judges to consider the law in the context
it had been used, to deter gay "cruising" in the park, and said, "What
relationship do these homosexual cruisers have with married people acting in private?
None. None whatsoever." McLees called the issue one of public morality which the
legislature rather than the court should decide to let stand or amend.
The legislature has shown great reluctance to change the law. A bill this year by
Delegate Karen Darner (D-Arlington) simply to reduce acts between consenting adults from
felonies to misdemeanors without jail sentences advanced farther than any of her previous
attempts to repeal the law. Felony convictions mean loss of voting rights and
disqualification from many kinds of professional credentials, while misdemeanors do not.
Darners proposal won a 50 - 49 vote in the House of Delegates because one opposing
member was absent due to illness, but her bill was finally killed by the state Senate
Courts and Justice Committee vote in February (see PlanetOut News of February 24). A
majority of that committee was unmoved by testimony including that of a wheelchair-bound
person whose disabilities make non-felonious intimacy all but impossible.
Meanwhile, the men caught "commanding, entreating or attempting to persuade"
undercover police in Wasena Park to commit the felonious "crime against nature"
are not serving five-year sentences. The first five cases tried ended in one conviction
with a sentence of sixty days. The men appearing before the Court of Appeals
plea-bargained, pleading guilty with the understanding that their sentences would be
suspended pending the appeal (see PlanetOut News of June 10, 1999). Charges were dropped
in several cases. Before the Wasena sting, Roanoke authorities had used misdemeanor
charges against cruisers, rather than the felony charge of soliciting a felony (oral sex).
In 1996, the Virginia Court of Appeals rejected a gay mans claim of
discrimination after he was charged with soliciting a felony in a park in Virginia Beach.
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