Last edited: February 14, 2005


Column: Protect Privacy By Repealing Sodomy Laws

Detroit News, November 30, 1998
615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, MI 48226
Fax 313-222-6417

By Deb Price, The Detroit News

This year, as never before, our nation has been thoroughly exposed to the unpleasant spectacle of our government intruding upon the most intimate details of private sexual behavior.

Most Americans have reacted by clearly signaling that private sex lives should be just that - private. President Bill Clinton, of course, benefits from that mature response. And it's giving welcome new momentum to the drive to lock government out of the bedrooms of consenting adults.

Thanks to the Georgia Supreme Court, the Rhode Island Legislature and a Maryland judge, 1998 has unexpectedly turned into a real breakthrough year for sodomy law repeal. Sodomy laws, which typically criminalize oral and anal sex, trigger relatively few actual arrests. Even though they generally apply to both straight and gay couples, sodomy laws are primarily used to stigmatize those of us who're gay.

The mere existence of these archaic statutes is cited as an excuse to deny us everything from child custody to protection from job discrimination to basic respect. And by perpetuating the myth that gay people ought to be treated as outlaws, sodomy laws make it all the more terrifying to take that first healthy step out of the closet.

Our country is well on the way to ridding itself of sodomy laws. Only 20 states and the military still have them; all 50 states did as late as 1960. The sweetest victory in the long drive for repeal came this Nov. 23 in the buckle of the Bible Belt.

The Georgia Supreme Court courageously gutted the nation's best known sodomy law and overturned the conviction of a man serving a five-year prison sentence for heterosexual oral sex in his own home.

"We cannot think of any other activity that reasonable persons would rank as more private and more deserving of protection from governmental interference than consensual, private, adult sexual activity. We conclude that such activity is at the heart of the Georgia Constitution's protection of the right of privacy," Chief Justice Robert Benham wrote for a courageous 6-1 majority.

Georgia's sodomy law, which carried a maximum sentence of 20 years, gained national notoriety in 1986 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it. Confronted with a challenge to Georgia's law brought by a gay bartender arrested in his own bedroom, the U.S. Supreme Court obsessively focused on the bartender's sexual orientation. The privacy guarantees implicit in the U.S. Constitution, the justices ruled 5-4, do not extend to gay sex.

That ill-considered Supreme Court decision - one of the most prejudiced and widely criticized of this century - was a devastating setback for the gay civil rights movement. Even today, it's a badge of second-class citizenship stitched onto our psyches. So Georgia's acknowledgement that its sodomy law improperly snooped into private lives is a huge strategic and psychological triumph.

"There is great power in the symbolism of the very same statute being struck down," notes Georgia attorney Stephen Scarborough of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Five states outlaw only same-sex sodomy: Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas.

Fifteen states and the military target gay and straight sodomy: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Maryland (its anal sex ban remains in effect but its gay-only oral sex law was struck down this fall), Massachusetts, Michigan (except Wayne County), Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia.

Promising challenges are under way in Arkansas, Minnesota and Texas.

"We're on a very good roll. I would like to think that we can eliminate every sodomy statute in this country within five to 10 years," says Michael Adams, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney.

Privacy is a basic American right. We can look forward to the day when all of our laws reflect that.

Deb Price is a Detroit News staff writer whose column is published on Monday.

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