In 1960 every state in America had an anti-sodomy law on its books.
In 1961, the American Law Institute’s Model Penal Code advocated the repeal of sodomy laws as they applied to private, adult, consensual behavior. Two years later the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took its first major case in opposition to these laws. Most judges were largely unsympathetic to the substantive due process claims raised.
But one of the biggest steps toward gay equality, the end of America’s sodomy laws, began 20+ years ago on November 17, 1998 when a 911 operator received a call about “a black male going crazy with a gun” at John Geddes Lawrence’s home in the Houston suburbs. Harris County sheriff’s deputies responded and entered Lawrence’s unlocked apartment. There, they purportedly found Lawrence and Tyron Garner engaging in consensual sex. What they actually found is a matter of debate. Lawrence and Garner weren’t lovers — in fact, that false report had been phoned in by Garner’s actual lover, Robert Eubanks, who suspected Garner and Lawrence were having an affair. One deputy wrote in his report that he saw Garner on the bed “on all fours” on the receiving end of anal sex with Lawrence, and that both were completely naked. Another said that he saw them on the floor, and that Garner wasn’t naked. He wasn’t sure whether he saw them having anal sex or oral sex — two completely different acts which would be very difficult to confuse. “The black guy was giving him head or they was [sic] doing each other from behind. I don’t remember.”
Lawrence and Garner were arrested, held in jail overnight, and charged with violating Section 21.06 of the Texas Penal Code. That law, otherwise known as the Texas Homosexual Conduct law, prohibited engaging “in deviant sexual intercourse with another individual of the same sex.” They both denied having sex that night, but their lawyers, sensing that the case might have the makings of a landmark case, advised them to plead no contest, neither admitting guilt nor protesting innocence. Because they didn’t actually have sex, the lawyers didn’t want to make the case about their innocence. After all, it’s hard to argue that two consenting adults of the same sex have the right to have sexual relations in the privacy of their home when the two adults in question hadn’t actually had sex. And so on November 20, 1998, Lawrence and Garner were convicted of the Class C misdemeanor by a Justice of the Peace in Houston, and were fined $200 each.
And with that, the landmark case of Lawrence v. Texas began to make its way through the court system: to the Texas Criminal Court (which rejected the defense’s request to dismiss the charges), a three-judge panel of the Texas 14th Court of Appeals (which ruled the law unconstitutional), and the full nine-judge panel of the 14th Court of Appeals (which reversed the three-judge panel). The appeal then reached the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which serves as the state’s supreme court for criminal cases. That court refused to hear the case, which left the lower court’s decision standing. Lawrence vs. Texas was then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. On June 26, 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Texas anti-sodomy law in a 6-3 ruling, along with similar laws in twelve other states.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion which Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer joined. The Court held that homosexuals had a protected liberty interest to engage in private, sexual activity; that homosexuals’ moral and sexual choices were entitled to constitutional protection; and that moral disapproval did not provide a legitimate justification for Texas’s law criminalizing sodomy.
Kennedy wrote: “The petitioners [Lawrence and Garner] are 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.” Kennedy reviewed the assumption the court made in Bowers, using the words of Chief Justice Burger’s concurring opinion in that case, that “Condemnation of [homosexual practices] is firmly rooted in Judeao-Christian moral and ethical standards.”
He reviewed the history of legislation that criminalized certain sexual practices, but without regard for the gender of those involved. He cited the Model Penal Code’s recommendations since 1955, the Wolfenden Report of 1963, and a 1981 decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Case 7525/76 Dudgeon v UK.
He endorsed the views Justice Stevens had outlined in his dissent in Bowers and wrote: “Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today. It ought not to remain binding precedent. Bowers v. Hardwick should be and now is overruled.” The majority decision also held that the intimate, adult consensual conduct at issue here was part of the liberty protected by the substantive component of the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process protections. Kennedy said that the Constitution protects “personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, [and] child rearing” and that homosexuals “may seek autonomy for these purposes.” Holding that “the Texas statute furthers no legitimate state interest which can justify its intrusion into the personal and private life of the individual”, the court struck down the anti-sodomy law as unconstitutional. Kennedy underscored the decision’s focus on consensual adult sexual conduct in a private setting:
The present case does not involve minors. It does not involve persons who might be injured or coerced or who are situated in relationships where consent might not easily be refused. It does not involve public conduct or prostitution. It does not involve whether the government must give formal recognition to any relationship that homosexual persons seek to enter.
What should not come to a shock to any is that Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a dissent stating:
Today’s opinion is the product of a Court, which is the product of a law-profession culture, that has largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda, by which I mean the agenda promoted by some homosexual activists directed at eliminating the moral opprobrium that has traditionally attached to homosexual conduct…. [T]he Court has taken sides in the culture war, departing from its role of assuring, as neutral observer, that the democratic rules of engagement are observed.
He cited the majority opinion’s concern that the criminalization of sodomy could be the basis for discrimination against homosexuals as evidence that the majority ignored the views of most Americans:
So imbued is the Court with the law profession’s anti-anti-homosexual culture, that it is seemingly unaware that the attitudes of that culture are not obviously “mainstream”; that in most States what the Court calls “discrimination” against those who engage in homosexual acts is perfectly legal.
He continued: “Let me be clear that I have nothing against homosexuals, or any other group, promoting their agenda through normal democratic means.” The majority’s “invention of a brand-new ‘constitutional right'”, he wrote, showed it was “impatient of democratic change”.
The case attracted much public attention, and a large number of amici curiae (“friends of the court”) briefs were filed. Its outcome was celebrated by gay rights advocates, and set the stage for further reconsideration’s of standing law, including the landmark case of Obergefell v. Hodges which recognized same-sex marriage as a fundamental right.