Decided by the United States Supreme Court in June 2003 by a six-to-three vote, Lawrence v. Texas overruled Texas’s “Homosexual Conduct” law and, more broadly, 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 (1965), which allowed married couples to use birth control, and Eisenstadt v. Baird (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 went on 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 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 June 7, 2000, the Texas Fourteenth District Court of Appeals ruled that Texas’s 1973 laws were unconstitutional, but a motion by the state led the Fourteenth Court of Appeals to rehear the case, and on March 15, 2001, the court reversed its decision and 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 heard oral arguments in March 2003 and issued its decision on June 26. 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 Loving v. Virginia (1967) since Lawrence was White and Garner was Black. Justices also overturned their 1986 opinion in Bowers v. Hardwick which upheld laws prohibiting homosexual sodomy. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, and Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the dissenting opinion. Justices William H. Rehnquist and Clarence Thomas sided with Scalia on grounds that they believed homosexuality was immoral.
Lawrence v. Texas effectively sanctioned all mutual relationships, as well as any private sexual activity as 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 maintain a strong queer community in Houston.
Lawrence died in 2011 at the age of sixty-eight, and Garner died in 2006 at age thirty-nine.
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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, March 12, 2012 (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/03/12/extreme-makeover-dahlia-lithwick), accessed June 30, 2017. New York Times, September 14, 2006. TracyLee Schimelfenig, “Recognition of the Rights of Homosexuals: Implications of Lawrence v. Texas,” California Western Law Review 40 (2003). Donald E. Wilkes, Jr., “Lawrence v. Texas: An Historic Human Rights Victory,” Popular Media 47 (2003). Brandon Wolf, “The Rest of the Story,” OutSmart, April 1, 2012 (http://www.outsmartmagazine.com/2012/04/the-rest-of-the-story/), accessed June 30, 2017.
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Andrew Joseph Pegoda,
“Lawrence v. Texas,”
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