The Queer Issue
One Friday night, John Lawrence took Tyron Garner home to have sex. They were in bed when police broke down the door and arrested them for violating the Texas sodomy law. Lawrence and Garner spent the night in jail. They were released and ordered to appear in criminal court the following Tuesday.
1952? Nope. It was 1998.
That week I joined the national board of Lambda Legal, which fights for the civil rights of LGBT people and people with HIV. At my first board meeting, I learned that Lambda Legal had taken Lawrence and Garner's case. We would use the case to attack the Texas sodomy law.
That law, like similar laws on the books in 12 other states, made it a crime for people to have oral or anal sex. Four states, including Texas, said it was a crime only for same-sex partners. My gay friends and I joked about violating the laws while traveling through those states. They were rarely enforced.
But those laws were regularly used to justify discrimination against gay men and lesbians. A lesbian lawyer lost her job in Atlanta because her employer refused to employ a criminal. A lesbian mother lost her child in Virginia because the court said no child should be raised around criminal activity.
Lambda Legal and the ACLU worked together for years to undo the U.S. Supreme Court's terrible 1986 decision upholding Georgia's sodomy law, Bowers v. Hardwick. The groups had already convinced a dozen states to eliminate their sodomy laws unilaterally, without federal intervention. But as Lawrence v. Texas moved through the Texas courts, Texas refused to budge.
After much debate, Lambda Legal decided to ask the Supreme Court to correct its Bowers mistake by overturning the Texas sodomy law—and all other remaining state sodomy statutes. It was a long shot. The Court does not often overrule itself, particularly not on decisions as recent as Bowers.
In March 2003, I went to D.C. to watch the Court's Lawrence argument. The justices grilled the Texas prosecutor defending the law. He said the reason for the law was that most Texans didn't like homosexual sodomy. Justice Breyer said that wasn't a reason and quoted a nursery rhyme: "I do not like thee, Dr. Fell—the reason why, I cannot tell."
I sat with John Lawrence at lunch afterward. He told me he had stewed all weekend after he was released from jail in 1998. He thought about paying the fine quietly. But he thought it was unfair that police broke into his bedroom when he had done nothing wrong. He decided to fight.
On June 26, 2003, the Supreme Court overruled Bowers and struck down the remaining state sodomy laws. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy said that Lawrence and Garner were "entitled to respect for their private lives. The State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime. Their right to liberty... gives them the full right to engage in their conduct without intervention of the government."
I was back in Seattle when the decision came. That afternoon I organized a rally in front of the federal courthouse in Seattle to celebrate. We sang and laughed and cheered—not so much because we could finally, legally have sex in Idaho and Virginia and Texas, but because the Supreme Court of the United States had finally recognized that LGBT people were people, entitled to respect and freedom.
Jamie Pedersen is the State Representative for Seattle's 43rd District.