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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Story Behind Lawrence v. Texas

Excerpt from the New Yorker's review of Flagrant Conduct by Dale Carpenter, professor at the University of Minnesota School of Law, about the landmark 2003 Supreme Court case:
Lawrence and Garner may have been reluctant to talk to civil-rights lawyers from the outset, and reluctant to become the face of gay sodomy in Texas, and yet this imperfect test case could be made over into something more than serviceable. Lambda Legal, a national gay-rights advocacy group, agreed to represent them as a means both of directly challenging Bowers v. Hardwick and of highlighting the consequences of criminalizing consensual gay sex. Sodomy laws were almost never enforced, but their very existence legitimatized a culture of homophobia, and as long as Bowers was still on the books gay-rights arguments would be stymied in the courts.

The legal opportunity depended, however, upon persuading the defendants to go along with an unusual strategy. High-powered lawyers would represent Lawrence and Garner, as long as they agreed to stop saying they weren’t guilty and instead entered a “no contest” plea. By doing so, the two were promised relative personal privacy, and given a chance to become a part of gay-civil-rights history. The cause was greater than the facts themselves. Lawrence and Garner understood that they were being asked to keep the dirty secret that there was no dirty secret.

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.

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