Unfinished Lives

Remembering LGBT Hate Crime Victims

Gay Couple That Changed the World: John Lawrence and Tyrone Garner Remembered

Tyrone Garner (l) and John Lawrence celebrate Lawrence v. Texas.

Houston, Texas – Lawrence v. Texas, set in motion by a couple of accidental gay activists, broke the back of anti-sodomy laws in the United States. What they did amounts to the “Brown v. Board of Education for gay and lesbian America,” according to Harvard constitutional law expert, Laurence Tribe.  Yet when John Geddes Lawrence, aged 68, died on November 20 of heart disease at his home in Houston, no mention of the landmark Supreme Court decision was made in the obituary or at his funeral.  Tyrone Garner, the other half of this remarkable couple, had preceded Lawrence in death back in 2006. Only when a lawyer in the case, Mitchell Katine, called Lawrence to invite him to a ceremony commemorating the law-changing decision, did he receive word of Lawrence’s passing from his life-partner, according to the New York Times.  Katine let the rest of the world know that an inadvertent giant in the struggle of LGBTQ equality had died.

Lawrence and Garner were arrested on September 17, 1998 for sodomy in a private home by Houston Police.  The police had been called in to investigate a false weapons report by a jealous former lover of Lawrence’s, who admitted he had falsified the report as an act of revenge. Nonetheless, the arrest went down, and Lawrence and Garner, who had hooked up earlier that day, were thrust by events upon the stage of history.  Lawrence was angry at the arrest, feeling that his privacy had been violated unjustly. That anger was a fire in his belly that saw the case through lower courts to the U.S. Supreme Court for its decisive ruling of June 2003, striking down anti-sodomy laws in fourteen states.  Writing for five of the six Justices on the prevailing side, Justice Anthony Kennedy declared, “The petitioners are entitled to respect for their private lives. The state,” he continued, “cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime.”  A compilation of documents and the text of Lawrence v. Texas, provided by Justia.com, the U.S. Supreme Court Center, may be accessed here.

We cannot overestimate the significance of John Lawrence and Tyrone Garner’s decision to fight back against an unjust law.  So much hung in the balance. They were not professional activists, the rainbow-flag-waving kind.  They were simply two gay men, attracted to each other, whose right to privacy was trampled by a legal system that upheld a heterosexist status quo.  One black, one white, this gay couple set the wheels in motion for every forward step in human rights since 2003: the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in 2010, and its full implementation by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense, and President Barack Obama in 2011, and the whole raft of same-sex marriage laws passed on the state level around the nation.

Professor Dale Carpenter, who wrote a recent book on Lawrence v. Texas, interviewed John Lawrence.  In conversation, this unassuming naval veteran and obstinate gay man asked Carpenter, “Why should there be a law passed that only prosecutes certain people? Why build a law that only says, ‘Because you’re a gay man you can’t do this. But because you’re a heterosexual, you can do the same thing’?”  Tyrone Garner told the Houston Chronicle in 2004 that he took quiet pride in the role he played in history.  “I don’t really want to be a hero,” Garner said. “But I want to tell other gay people, ‘Be who you are, and don’t be afraid.’ ”

Sometimes a couple of men get mad, and dig in, and the world changes.  That is what the LGBTQ community owes John Lawrence and Tyrone Garner. Because of their courage, the United States justice system has changed forever.

December 26, 2011 Posted by | African Americans, Anglo Americans, Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT), gay men, GLBTQ, Hate Crimes, Heterosexism and homophobia, Law and Order, Lawrence v. Texas, LGBTQ, Marriage Equality, Matthew Shepard Act, Remembrances, Repeal of DADT, Social Justice Advocacy, Texas, U.S. Supreme Court | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

   

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