The Real People Behind Lawrence v. Texas

Dahlia Lithwick:

That’s the punch line: the case that affirmed the right of gay couples to have consensual sex in private spaces seems to have involved two men who were neither a couple nor having sex. In order to appeal to the conservative Justices on the high court, the story of a booze-soaked quarrel was repackaged as a love story. Nobody had to know that the gay-rights case of the century was actually about three or four men getting drunk in front of a television in a Harris County apartment decorated with bad James Dean erotica.

9 comments for “The Real People Behind Lawrence v. Texas

  1. April 4, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    Living in Houston, I actually did know that both men had since died, but I never knew the real story behind the arrest. And holy crap, the last line of the article is just heartbreaking.

  2. Tim
    April 4, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    groggette, it is heartbreaking. OTOH, I found myself at one point reading the story worrying if some vengeful TX prosecutor, now that this has come out, would try to retaliate against Lawrence and Garner, claiming that pleading guilty when they hadn’t had sex was perjury somehow. I don’t know if such a thing is legally possible, but I wouldn’t put it past the wingnuts to try. It turns out they are both beyond the reach of further harm.

  3. Laurel
    April 4, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    But they didn’t plead guilty. They pleaded “no contest,” which, I believe is not an admission of guilt.

  4. April 4, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    What Laurel said. Plus (according to the article, at least) the litagators made damn sure nothing was a lie. So I imagine they made a big deal about consensual sex in private by a couple without ever saying the 2 men were a couple who had any sex.

  5. Lindsay Beyerstein
    April 4, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    Just finished “Flagrant Conduct,” which I picked up after reading Lithwick’s compelling review. Highly recommended.

  6. Tim
    April 4, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    @ Laurel: good point, of course I read but glossed right over that little detail. I suppose they were advised to do that for that very reason by the advisers taken on for the appeal.

    This story was just stunning to me. I had no idea, as had not apparently most people. There really are levels and levels of things to unpack here. I wouldn’t want to argue that good didn’t come out of it all in the end but there is a lot that is sad and disturbing. As well as having its darkly comic elements.

  7. Q Grrl
    April 4, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    Does it matter that, in Justice Kennedy’s stirring meditation on privacy and dignity and the “manifold possibilities” of liberty, the truth of the non-relationship between the non-lovers John Lawrence and Tyron Garner was lost? Does it matter that our collective memory locks the two men together in a mythic embrace?

    Does it matter that two men got arrested because of institutionalized homophobia? I mean, how the hell else would you fight that? Doesn’t the state assume some responsibility for arresting two men based on a wrong assumption?

    I’m not really seeing why this is such titillating information. Have folks forgotten how homophobia works? (this is aimed at the authors, not Feministe)

  8. Joe from an alternate universe
    April 5, 2012 at 10:26 am

    But they didn’t plead guilty. They pleaded “no contest,” which, I believe is not an admission of guilt.


    Good point. And there is an important reason for that. The lawyers knew that nothing happened. Had they advised the plaintiffs to plead guilty, and the prosecutors found out, the lawyers would have been guilty of misconduct, and have found themselves in a lot of trouble, and the case possibly thrown out.

    Lithwick reaffirms this:

    (Carpenter is careful throughout to show that none of the civil-rights lawyers lied or misrepresented the facts.)

    Had they entered a plea of guilty, the civil-rights lawyers certainly would have been misrepresenting the facts.

  9. So Very Unhip
    April 6, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    I’m still in the middle of that article (was reading it on the bus the other day in the dead tree version of The New Yorker) and it was fascinating, but there were little bits that bugged me. The way homophobia was referred to as “vague horror” regarding sodomy, rather than “stupid uptight pearl-clutching at buttsex” and “retrograde, stupid ideas about gender roles plus lots of lady-hating.” It gave too much credence to homophobes’ feelings, and painted an inaccurate picture of what homophobia really is (and ignored the misogyny and gender-role panic wrapped up in it), is what I’m saying. Public opinion on gay rights was also described as “switching sides” — a small thing, but why “switching sides” and not “Americans grew the fuck up”?

    That and there’s this faint whiff of “OMFG THOSE DUDES WEREN’T EVEN HAVING SEX, THOSE WILY GAYS, LYING IN ORDER TO GET THEIR RIGHTS” with no mention of how these cops walked into a house full of gay men, saw a scribbled drawing of James Dean-with-a-giant-cock taped to the wall, and convinced themselves that the guys they were looking at were having sex. Because they’re gay, and that’s what gay dudes do, amirite? It mentions that the cops all had different stories of what they saw, but it doesn’t connect the dots: that homophobia made these cops see something that wasn’t there. There’s a lot about how the story at the heart of Lawrence v. Texas had to be prettied up but not a lot of finger-pointing at the real reason why: homophobia.

    The article is very well-written, and fascinating, and I don’t think any of the nits I’m picking were intentional on Lithwick’s part, but these little nits make the piece a little less gay-affirming than I would’ve expected from the New Yorker in 2012. (In 2012, I’m pretty much expecting nothing less than a cover splashed with rainbows that says, “BEING QUEER: IT’S AWESOME!”) This, plus the faint implication in the Tyler Clementi article that homophobia doesn’t affect you as strongly if you’re out, is a little disturbing. Not *super* disturbing, but a little.

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