For many Americans, the nation’s political landscape seems to be shaking and seizing beneath their feet. And for LGBTQ citizens, it’s even worse.
When the United States Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in May, it reversed the 49-year-old constitutional protection of a woman’s right to privacy regarding her body. For the first time ever, SCOTUS revoked an American right, and then granted the government authority over the womb.
The revered Obergefell v. Hodges decision of 2015—the case that awarded LGBTQ citizens a constitutionally protected right to same-sex marriage—is only seven years old. Like Roe, that decision was predicated on an American citizen’s right to privacy.
In the written decision striking down Roe, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas suggests that the Court should also revisit decisions such as Obergefell v. Hodges. Can marriage equality survive?
What many do not know is that in 2003, the landmark SCOTUS decision Lawrence v. Texas helped provide the stepping stones to Obergefell. Lawrence legalized consensual homosexual conduct, and that case was victorious thanks to a handful of courageous LGBTQ Houstonians. Because of them, LGBTQ Americans were no longer criminalized for who and how they loved.
Lighting the Torch
On the night of September 17, 1998, two deputies from the Harris County Sheriff’s Department responded to a reported weapons disturbance at a southeast Houston apartment complex.
According to the officers, they entered an unlocked apartment unit to find two adult males engaged in an act of sodomy. John Lawrence, the middle-aged white male tenant of the apartment, and Tyron Garner, a younger Black man, were arrested and charged with “deviate sexual intercourse” under the Texas sodomy law. Both pleaded no contest and spent the night in jail. No weapons were ever found.
Two employees of the Harris County court where the sodomy charges were filed decided to alert Lane Lewis, a local community activist. In 1998, Lewis had just finished a term as president of the Houston Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus and was working at Pacific Street, a popular gay bar now operating as Blur Bar.
“The boyfriend of one of the court employees came in the club and told me about the detention of Lawrence and Garner,” Lewis recalls. “I immediately contacted the two defendants. I explained that I felt we could take this to the Supreme Court, and offered to find them legal representation. They could have walked away, but to their credit, they didn’t. We owe them much gratitude for their bravery.”
Lewis wanted the case to be handled by local gay attorney Mitchell Katine. Lewis and Katine had worked together in the past, and Katine’s years of volunteer legal work and ties to the respected law firm Williams Birnberg & Andersen made him an obvious choice.
Lewis then contacted two of his mentors, Houston City Council Member Annise Parker and local queer advocate Ray Hill, to discuss what he thought he had found and to seek their opinion about reaching out to Katine. “This case belonged to the community, and I wanted to make sure I had the advice of others,” says Lewis. Parker and Hill agreed that Mitchell Katine was the way to go.
“Mitchell never failed to fight for our community,” Hill told OutSmart in a 2018 interview. “He was fearless when it came to protecting human rights. Mitchell is also brilliant, and had all the smarts it would take to win this case in the highest court in the land. There was never any question.”
Katine recalls drawing a deep breath after Lewis approached him. “To ignore the injustice meant that these two men, both just regular guys, would now be registered as sex offenders, affecting their potential for future employment and much more. I could not let that happen; I could not turn away,” he says. The attorney signed on as lead local counsel—pro-bono—at the first request.
Lining Up the Troops
Anti-sodomy regulations were still on the books in 14 states in the US in 1998, but they were seldom prosecuted—thus making it difficult to challenge them. With the arrest of Lawrence and Garner on sodomy charges, it was now possible to drag those unjust laws into the light of day, allowing courageous people to force the courts to look at its prejudice.
Lewis was assigned to keep the wheels moving forward, which meant maintaining the full participation of defendants Lawrence and Garner. It was no easy task for Lewis, who had to keep the men financially afloat and safe.
“The thing about John and Tyron is that they were just ordinary guys—blue-collar, working class, and neither of them was out. They were not the sort of people one would expect to stand up to a law at the level of the Supreme Court, but they did,” Katine emphasizes.
“They both had hearts of gold,” Lewis adds, “but they were tormented by insecurities and fear. They had much to lose. They were ordinary guys who did an extraordinary thing.”
Once the roles were settled on locally, Katine reached out for assistance to Lambda Legal, the national nonprofit agency fiercely dedicated to protecting and advancing LGBTQ rights. They quickly agreed to help. With Katine as local lead attorney, Lambda appealed Lawrence and Garner’s sodomy charges through three courts—and lost in each one. This, of course, was exactly Team Houston’s intention. They had targeted a Supreme Court case from the start.
“In order to proceed to the Supreme Court, we had to lose at every lower court level. It was a slow but necessary process.” Katine explains.
It was a beautiful day in Houston on the morning of June 26, 2003. It was also the morning that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of Lawrence v. Texas. The decision granted citizens the constitutional right to privacy, protecting consensual, adult sexual intimacy from government regulation and striking down the sodomy law in Texas. By extension, it invalidated the remaining sodomy laws in 13 other states. In San Francisco’s famous Castro District, all the gay flags were taken down and replaced with the American flag to underscore the day’s Supreme Court decision.
That evening, a rally in celebration of the victory was held on the steps of Houston City Hall. When it was Annise Parker’s turn to address the crowd, she expressed gratitude to all of the team members involved in the effort. “The fact is, this decision is not about the gay and lesbian community, and it’s not about privacy regarding what we do in the bedrooms. This decision is about the Court deciding that there are places the government does not belong,” Parker said. The crowd roared with approval.
Not to be outdone, Ray Hill spoke next. It was an evening of sheer elation for the aging activist; he had worked throughout his life for this moment. “I am an old man now,” Hill said, “but if I should get lucky tonight and engage in an act of intimacy, it will be the first time in my life I will not be a criminal in Texas!”
Lawrence, Garner, and Hill are no longer with us. But Lane Lewis and Mitchell Katine still live in Houston, so if you see them around and are so inclined, buy them a drink or just shake their hands in gratitude.
Better yet, you can always donate to Lambda Legal. The sad fact is that they are not likely to become obsolete as tireless defenders of LGBTQ civil rights any time soon.
For more on Lambda Legal, visit lambdalegal.org.