Last edited: February 06, 2005

Changes Sought in State Sex Law

Greensboro News & Record, March 9, 2001
P. O. Box 20848, Greensboro, NC 27420
Fax: 336-373-7067

By Eric Dyer, Raleigh Bureau, News & Record

RALEIGH—Straight or gay, adults who engage in oral or anal sex in North Carolina are breaking the law, even if the act occurs behind closed doors.

Some argue the state’s sodomy statute is puritanical, antiquated and silly. Yet past efforts to weaken or repeal it have gone nowhere in the General Assembly, where talk about sex seems taboo.

Even so, a push is again under way to amend the law, with proponents saying they hope to persuade legislators that their intent is to safeguard personal freedom rather than to condone any sexual practice.

"There is a basic right to privacy that this law violates," said Jo Wyrick, executive director of Equality NC, a lobbying group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. "... I think most people take the attitude that what other people do in their own homes is their own business."

Conservative groups contend the sodomy, or crimes against nature, law appropriately reflects societal sexual mores and should be left alone.

A measure introduced last week in the state Senate would exempt consenting adults from the law, as long as the acts are not for hire or done in public.

The proposed bill would leave the sodomy law on the books because it is used to prosecute other behaviors such as public sex, prostitution and bestiality—acts that opponents of the sodomy law do not wish to endorse.

"Your home is your castle, and you should be able to have private business within your castle," said state Sen. Jeanne Lucas, D-Durham, a co-sponsor of the Sexual Privacy Act. "You’re not hurting anybody. You are doing what pleases you."

The bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, said the current crimes against nature law was a "government stamp of authority" that "lawless people" use to justify harassing lesbians and gay men.

"Why should we criminalize behavior that’s nobody’s business but their own?" said Kinnaird, D-Orange, whose district includes eastern Randolph County.

The North Carolina law, which traces back to 16th century England under King Henry VIII, is not unique.

Every state in the nation had sodomy statutes until about 40 years ago, although a majority have been repealed or struck down in court since then.

Four states still have laws in place that ban oral and anal sex specifically between people of the same gender, regardless of consent, according to the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay and lesbian civil rights organization based in New York. Twelve states, including the Carolinas and Virginia, condemn the sexual practices between heterosexuals and homosexuals, the group says.

Lambda and other gay-rights groups largely have been responsible for challenges to sodomy laws across the country. In North Carolina, about 75 gay activists visited the legislature Thursday, in part to build support for revising the crimes against nature law. They talked with lawmakers and held a noontime rally in front of the Legislative Building.

Wyrick, the Equality NC director, said while the statute theoretically applies both to gay and straight adults, it often is used to discriminate against homosexuals. For example, landlords might deny housing and hotels refuse to serve gay couples on the basis that state law forbids them from aiding and abetting a felony, she said.

Conservatives have opposed moves to get rid of sodomy laws in other states, saying government has a responsibility to set standards of conduct.

John Rustin of the N.C. Family Policy Council said a weakened sodomy law would contradict measures the General Assembly passed five years ago banning same-sex unions and requiring that public schools teach abstinence before marriage. He also said case law had established that the sodomy law did not apply to married couples.

"It is an attempt by promoters of the homosexual lifestyle to get a foothold in state law for their behavior," Rustin said.

Violation of the sodomy law is a felony punishable by just over a year in prison, officials said.

People are charged with the offense. According to the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, trial-level judges statewide heard 379 cases last year that involved a breach of the crimes against nature law. Another 101 cases concerned attempted violations of the statute, a misdemeanor.

What acts were covered in those cases were not spelled out in the state statistics.

Al Hubbard, an assistant district attorney in Guilford County who handles sex crimes, said law enforcement often uses the law against people soliciting or having sex in public park but rarely, if ever, on matters of private intimacy.

"It’s something you don’t see much used with two individuals in their bedrooms," Hubbard added. He noted that while North Carolina law also makes sexual intercourse between unmarried people a misdemeanor, "I haven’t seen that gone after."

The measure has been referred to a Senate committee, where similar bills have died in recent years. No hearing has been scheduled.

"It will be discussed again. The question is, are they going to vote on it?" said Deborah Ross, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union state affiliate.

She says that is unlikely.

"It’s the sex part," Ross explained. "(Lawmakers) are afraid of what could happen in an election because it could be portrayed in unfavorable ways in an eight-second sound bite."

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