Lawrence v. Texas: From Iniquity to Equality

In June 2003, the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Lawrence v. Texas, deciding that anti-sodomy laws in Texas and twelve other states were unconstitutional. Ironically, the case that finally made it legal in all fifty states for loving same-sex couples to have sexual relations involved neither a relationship, nor any actual sex.

On the night of September 17, 1998, police responded to a call claiming that “a black man was going crazy with a gun” in an apartment on the outskirts of Houston. When sheriff’s deputies arrived at the apartment of John Geddes Lawrence, they didn’t find anyone with a gun, but they did find some poorly drawn James Dean erotica and three very drunk men, including a belligerent Lawrence, who was outraged that police had entered his apartment without a warrant. Perhaps because of Lawrence’s belligerence, he and one of the other men present, Tyron Garner, were arrested for having sex in Lawrence’s bedroom, an act in violation of Texas’s “Homosexual Conduct” law, which prohibited people of the same sex from engaging in oral or anal sex. Both Lawrence and Garner denied having sex, and conflicting police reports from that night would seem to support their claim. One officer said he witnessed oral sex, another claimed to have seen anal sex, and the other two officers present didn’t report seeing any sexual conduct at all. Understandably, Lawrence and Garner were shocked to learn the charges against them. They weren’t lovers; they were barely more than acquaintances. At the time, Garner was in a tempestuous relationship with Robert Eubanks. While the men were drinking at Lawrence’s apartment that night, Eubanks “seems to have thought that Garner was being flirtatious with Lawrence.” Eubanks was jealous and indignant, and, under the pretext of leaving to buy soda, called in the false report.

Had Lawrence and Garner each paid their two-hundred-dollar fine, or had anyone looked into the widely varying police reports from that night, the case probably would have stopped there. But, by happenstance, a gay clerk in the sheriff’s department saw the charges when they were filed and talked to his friend Lane Lewis, a bartender active in the gay rights’ scene, about the case. Lewis understood the potential significance of this case and convinced Lawrence to speak to a local attorney. From there, the gay rights group Lambda Legal became involved. Recognizing that this might be their best, and only, opportunity to challenge Texas’s anti-sodomy law, legal counsel advised Lawrence and Garner to plead “no contest,” a move which would allow them to appeal their conviction.

Lawrence and Garner were both risky plaintiffs for a legal test case. Historically, major test cases have involved plaintiffs with unassailable characters, individuals whose personal lives would not distract from the matter at hand. Lawrence, a fifty-five-year-old white man, and Garner, a thirty-one-year-old black man, both of whom had criminal records and who had been arrested for supposedly hooking up in a cheap apartment, certainly did not fit that bill. Plus, the interracial element was unlikely to gain sympathy in a Texas courtroom. But, Lawrence and Garner also had little to lose if their appeal was unsuccessful. And most importantly, the infrequent enforcement of sodomy laws meant that lawyers might not get another chance to challenge the law.

Anti-sodomy laws have been a part of American legal history since the colonial era, and even as recently as 1960 sodomy was illegal in all fifty states. But by 2003, such laws were rarely enforced and remained on the books primarily to stigmatize gay individuals. (As if to reinforce this point, Texas had refined its anti-sodomy laws in 1973, criminalizing homosexual sodomy while “legalizing heterosexual sodomy and bestiality.”) In the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick case, the Supreme Court upheld an anti-sodomy law in Georgia, which criminalized both homosexual and heterosexual sodomy. Lawyers for Garner and Lawrence hoped that the disparate treatment of gay and straight individuals under the Texas law might give them a better chance at presenting a successful challenge.

From the get-go, Lawrence and Garner were advised not to speak to the press and their lawyers requested that the plaintiffs’ privacy be respected. Surprisingly, these requests were honored. By the time the case reached the Supreme Court, it was barely about Lawrence and Garner at all. Instead, lawyers presented a more tasteful and compelling argument about the fundamental “sameness of same-sex couples,” and the right of loving gay couples to enjoy the same physical intimacy and privacy that straight couples enjoy. It was an argument that the Court found convincing. By a six-to-three margin, the Court overturned the decision in Bowers and struck down the Texas statute, stating that the due-process clause of the Constitution guarantees “the right to a zone of personal liberty into which the government may not intrude” and “equal protection of the laws,” under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court also abandoned reasoning used in Bowers, which held that, because all laws are to some extent “rooted in morality,” it may be reasonable to uphold certain laws simply because they legislate morality. Justice Antonin Scalia, in his dissenting opinion for Lawrence, bemoaned the death of “morals legislation,” and warned that the decision would ultimately result in “judicial imposition of homosexual marriage.”

It seems that Scalia’s warning may soon come to fruition. Lawrence v. Texas, by overturning laws whose very existence tainted gay men and women with an air of criminality, paved the way for gay marriage to become a possibility, if not yet a reality. As polls show, more and more Americans are wondering why their gay friends, family members, and coworkers shouldn’t be allowed to get married. As even Bill O’Reilly admits, “the compelling argument is on the side of homosexuals,” and opponents may be hard pressed to do much more than stand by and thump their Bibles.

By Charlotte Lewis, Staff Contributor


photo credit: petit hiboux via photopin cc


  1. Shannon /

    This is a great article! It’s nice to have some historical and legal context for these topics.

  2. Matt /

    That was so insightful. Fascinating stuff!