John Lawrence died late last year, and his passing went almost unnoticed. It was more than a month before anyone published an obituary. Little has been made of it in the LGBT press.
Let’s take a moment to remember him now.
Like Harvey Milk, Lawrence is one of a handful of people whose courage changed the world in which we live. Like the rioters at Stonewall, his place in LGBT history was wholly circumstantial.
On Sept. 17, 1998, police officers in Houston were dispatched to investigate a weapons disturbance. They burst into Lawrence’s apartment, where they claimed they found him having sex with a much younger African American man. Both were arrested for violating a Texas law prohibiting deviate sexual intercourse with another individual of the same sex.
They were held overnight and fined $200 each. According to Mitchell Katine, the lawyer who represented him, Lawrence was outraged.
He was upset about how he was treated, physically and personally that night, Katine told the New York Times. The fire stayed in him.
Rather than pay the small fine, Lawrence fought back. Texas courts rejected his constitutional challenges, relying on a 1986 Supreme Court decision. In Bowers v. Hardwick, Justice Byron White wrote that, To claim that a right to engage in [homosexual sex] is deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition or implicit in our concept of ordered liberty is, at best, facetious.
Lawrence, then 55 and a non-activist closeted to family and friends, appealed. Once again it went all the way to the Supreme Court, but this time with a different result.
The petitioners are entitled to respect for their private lives, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the 6-3 majority in Lawrence v. Texas. The state cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime.
In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia scoffed that the majority’s opinion led to a logical conclusion that there is also a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. One year later, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts agreed with him, making that state the first to legalize gay marriage. Earlier this week, Washington became the seventh.
For Lawrence, it took five years from arrest to final vindication in 2003. He was willing to be the real-life face of injustice throughout, said Katine.
Legal scholars now argue that Lawrence’s stubborn righteous indignation, and the legal precedent that it spawned, laid the foundation for all the good things that have happened since legalization of same-sex marriage, repeal of the military’s ban on openly gay and lesbian personnel, the current administration’s decision to ignore DOMA and likely many of the good things to come.
California’s Prop 8 is ripe to be reviewed by the Supremes. A positive outcome would be impossible without Lawrence v. Texas.
As an exercise to honor John Lawrence, consider whether you have the courage to stand up to injustice, or even to live openly in all circumstances and accept the consequences. I admit that I’m struggling.
I started Watermark in 1994, four years before Lawrence was arrested. Frankly that took less of the John Lawrence brand of courage than coming out to my parents, or sharing with a respected Old South neighbor that I publish a newspaper for the LGBT community.
For Lawrence and the rest of us, courage is almost always about telling and living our truth.
When I was 31, and after I’d been sober for two years, I wanted to finish the law degree that I had begun ten years prior. But how could I get the University of Florida law school not a particularly nurturing place to readmit me after such an extended lapse? I struggled to come up with a viable story until it dawned on me that I should simply tell the truth. As a previously closeted recovering alcoholic, it was an option I hadn’t even considered.
So I wrote to tell them I had withdrawn a closeted alcoholic, actively hiding from myself. I now hoped to finish my degree, an openly gay man with the clarity and enthusiasm of sobriety and some good counseling.
To my surprise, I received a congratulatory call from the dean inviting me back and offering whatever assistance the school could provide. And I learned an indelible lesson: people relate to the truth.
John Lawrence knew the truth: that he’d done nothing wrong.
Why should there be a law that only prosecutes certain people? He said in an interview after his victory in the Supreme Court. Why create a law that says, Because you’re gay you can’t do this, but because you’re a heterosexual you can do the same thing?