Lawrence v. Texas (2003)

I originally wrote this for the Handbook of Texas’s Handbook of Houston back in July.

Decided by the Supreme Court of the United States in June 2003 and in a 6-3 decision, Lawrence v. Texas overturned the United States’s remaining laws that prohibited consensual same-sex sexual relationships on grounds that adults have a right to privacy and to liberty.

Starting in the 1960s and 1970s, numerous states overturned sodomy laws voluntarily. Where states did not, both the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal (a New York-based agency founded in 1973 dedicated to expanding and defending the civil rights of individuals who are Queer) spent decades gradually challenging all remaining laws that only permitted procreative sex between a married, opposite-sex couple. Prior to Lawrence v. Texas successful cases included Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965, which allowed married couples to use birth control, and Eisenstadt v. Baird in 1972, which extended the legality of birth control to unmarried people.

The specific legal battle for Lawrence v. Texas began on September 17, 1998, when the Harris County Sheriff’s Office responded to a report made by Robert Eubanks about a weapons disturbance. Ultimately, officers arrested John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Garner, both men, for engaging in anal intercourse in violation of anti-homosexuality statutes updated by the Texas legislature in 1973. From the beginning, the historical record contains multiple contradictions and unusual complexities. For example, while it is known that Eubanks lied about the weapons disturbance, it is not known if this was due to his being jealous that his off-and-on boyfriend had been flirting with Lawrence or if this was the first part of a carefully-planned tactic, potentially even with police involvement, to codify homosexuality across the United States.

Regardless, Queer people in Houston had powerful memories of the Anita Bryant Protest in 1977, the Paul Broussard Murder in 1991, frequent harassment from police, and other such events and thus seized the opportunity to support Lawrence and Garner and to push courts toward recognizing their relationships and sexuality. In particular, Houston-based Queer activists such as Ray Hill, Annise Parker (who would go on, among other things, to serve as Mayor of Houston from 2010 to 2016), Lane Lewis, and Mitchell Katine took the lead in assisting with the extended legal battle. As a result of this interest, Lambda Legal represented Lawrence and Garner.

Lawrence and Garner initially pleaded not guilty the day following their arrests; however, this changed at the first full hearing on November 20, 1998. Lawrence and Garner did not contest the charges, and in an agreement between the judge, prosecutor, and Lambda Legal’s lawyers, the court fined Lawrence and Garner just enough such that Lawrence and Garner could appeal. On December 22, the cooperation between the judge, prosecutor (Angela Jewel Beavers, a lesbian), and Lambda Legal continued. The judge again fined the two men just enough to continue challenging the charges of having engaged in homosexual sex. On November 3, 1999, the Texas Fourteenth Court of Appeals ruled that Texas’s 1973 laws were unconstitutional. On March 15, 2001, the Court of Appeals reinstated the 1973 laws against homosexuality. After the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused to hear the case, Lambda Legal and Lawrence and Garner took their case to the Supreme Court of the United States.

The Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in March 2003 and issued their decision in June. Justices ruled that Texas had violated Lawrence’s and Garner’s right to due process and to equal protection. Among prior cases cited by the Justices’ opinions was the 1967 Loving v. Virginia since Lawrence was White and Garner was Black. Justices also overturned their 1986 opinion in Bowers v. Hardwick which upheld laws prohibiting homosexual sodomy. Antonin Scalia, William H. Rehnquist, and Clarence Thomas sided against their colleagues on grounds that they believed homosexuality is immoral. 

Lawrence v. Texas effectively sanctioned all mutual relationships, as well as any and all private sexual activities as being basic Constitutionally-protected civil rights, regardless of sex. On a national level, it ultimately helped further propel the Queer Civil Rights Movement and served as part of the precedent cited by justices in their 2015 groundbreaking decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, that made same-sex marriage legal across the United States. On a local level, Lawrence v. Texas helped further maintain a strong Queer community in Houston.

Lawrence died in 2011 at 68, and Garner in 2006 at 39.

Bibliography:

Dale Carpenter, Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013.

Dahlia Lithwick, “Extreme Makeover: The story behind the story of Lawrence v. Texas,” The New Yorker (accessed June 30, 2017) http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/03/12/extreme-makeover-dahlia-lithwick.

Douglas Martin, “Tyron Garner, 39, Plaintiff in Pivotal Sodomy Case, Dies,” New York Times (accessed June 30, 2017) http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/14/obituaries/14garner.html.

TracyLee Schimelfenig, “Recognition of the Rights of Homosexuals: Implications of Lawrence v. Texas,” California Western Law Review 40, no. 1 (2003): 149-168. http://scholarlycommons.law.cwsl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1151&context=cwlr.

Donald E. Wilkes, Jr., “Recognition of the Rights of Homosexuals: Implications of Lawrence v. Texas,” Popular Media 47 (2003) http://digitalcommons.law.uga.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1051&context=fac_pm.

Brandon Wolf, “The Rest of the Story,” OutSmart (accessed June 30, 2017) http://www.outsmartmagazine.com/2012/04/the-rest-of-the-story/.

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda



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