Seated on a parade float winding its way through Montrose, the heart of Houston’s LGBTQ+ community, John Lawrence and Tyron Garner temporarily assumed the status of queer icons when they served as grand marshals in the city’s 2003 Pride parade. Just days earlier, the two quiet men with working-class roots fused their names to a pivotal moment in America’s gay rights movement.
“They were like celebrities,” said Brad Pritchett, who now works as the field director for the LGBTQ+ advocacy group Equality Texas.
Twenty years ago Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Texas’ ban on sodomy, ruling that states could not criminalize homosexuality. Lawrence and Garner were the plaintiffs in that watershed ruling. Pritchett remembers Houston’s Pride parade a few days later feeling different than it normally did, thanks to that 6-3 opinion.
Until then, LGBTQ+ people living in Texas and 13 other states lived under a dark cloud cast by laws that allowed law enforcement to arrest them for participating in consenting behavior among adults conducted in their private residences.
Lawrence and Garner were arrested and hauled to jail almost five years prior on the suspicion of having sex in the privacy of Lawrence’s apartment. The Supreme Court ruling voiding such laws was received by LGBTQ+ Americans as a long-awaited rainbow of recognition in the form of hard-fought constitutional protection. A ban on gay sex remains on the Texas books today.
In the 20 years since, advocates have secured major victories and cemented key rights including marriage equality, employment protections and the ability to serve in the military – victories that likely would not have been achieved without the foundation of Lawrence v. Texas.
Yet not all members of the LGBTQ+ community have equally benefited from evolving attitudes toward—and legal protections for—the queer community. Notably, transgender people still face discrimination and violence at higher rates than their lesbian, gay and bisexual peers.
In recent years, as trans people have gained visibility in the public sphere, familiar anti-LGBTQ+ tropes have emerged in efforts to alienate this community. Advocates say this attention has prompted a new wave of legislation in recent years that targets LGBTQ+ people—with particular focus on transgender Texans—largely pushed by Republicans who have campaigned on these issues.
Andrea Segovia, the senior field and policy adviser for the Transgender Education Network of Texas, said the virulence and frequency of transphobia have increased alongside this political focus. Texas lawmakers for years have targeted trans Texans with a litany of legislation, to mixed results. But earlier this month, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law one of the Republican-dominated Legislature’s most consequential victories: a ban on hormone therapies and puberty blockers for trans minors over the outcries from parents and medical groups that say gender-affirming care saves young lives.
Segovia said hostility toward trans people reached new heights during this recent legislative session and called it a “boldness of people to feel as though they can take other people’s lives in their hands and not have repercussions … for causing harm to trans people.”
“Good, average guys”
Before the landmark Supreme Court case, Lawrence and Garner were not celebrities. They both lived on the margins of society, away from the limelight, like so many other LGBTQ+ Texans in the 20th century.
“They were just good, average guys just trying to get through life with the hand that was dealt ’em,” said Lane Lewis, a longtime gay rights activist in Houston who identified their case as an opportunity to challenge the state’s sodomy ban.
The political climate in which Lawrence and Garner were arrested for allegedly having sex was not friendly to LGBTQ+ Houstonians, Lewis recalled. He remembers instances in the ’90s in which trucks full of young men would drive around the city looking to assault queer people.
In 1991, a 27-year-old Houston resident named Paul Broussard was murdered in a gay-bashing incident. In response, the Houston Police Department organized an undercover operation in Montrose to catch gay-bashers, but the effort was quickly discontinued because of safety risks to officers.
Furthermore, gay, lesbian and bisexual Texans were not free from some law enforcement officers’ disdain for their community. For decades leading up to that fateful arrest of Lawrence and Garner in 1998, the Houston Police Department sometimes raided gay bars and harassed those congregating in some of the only safe spaces for LGBTQ+ people at the time.
Although anti-sodomy laws were rarely enforced, their impact cast a shadow over the lives of LGBTQ+ Texans—both privately and publicly.
“These laws were designed to justify rampant discrimination against queer people,” said Wesley Phelps, a University of North Texas associate history professor who recently authored a book on the queer rights movement in Texas.
Phelps points to numerous examples prior to Lawrence in which LGBTQ+ Texans were denied employment, public assistance, housing and child custody because of their sexual orientation. There were simply no protections against those forms of discrimination, he said.
Lewis, the LGBTQ+ activist, said overturning Texas’ anti-sodomy law wasn’t the end goal for the gay rights movement. He was after occupational equality, which was a necessary step for queer people to live without fear of losing their jobs, their housing or custody of their children because of their sexual orientation.
“Can you imagine the Supreme Court wanting to protect the marriage rights of gay and lesbian citizens when gays and lesbians were still considered criminals in 13 states?” Phelps said.
Accounts of what happened in Lawrence’s apartment on Sept. 17, 1998, differ drastically according to the men arrested and the officers. Two Harris County sheriff’s deputies each claimed to have seen Lawrence and Garner having sex, though their reports varied considerably as to what type of sex Lawrence and Garner were having.
Alternatively, Lawrence and Garner maintained from the beginning that they weren’t having sex (though this detail wasn’t public until after the 2003 decision for fear it would derail the case). An abundance of evidence supports their version of events, said Dale Carpenter, a constitutional law professor at the Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law who wrote a book on the case. But ultimately that detail wasn’t relevant to the outcome of the case at large.
What can be confirmed is that on that late Thursday night, Garner’s on-again, off-again boyfriend at the time, Robert Eubanks, called the police on Lawrence and Garner, claiming that a Black man was “going crazy with a gun” inside the apartment. Eubanks was reportedly jealous of the flirtatious relationship between Lawrence, who was white, and Garner, who was Black.
When Harris County sheriff’s officers responded shortly after, they entered Lawrence’s apartment anticipating an armed individual and instead found the two men and pornographic material in the home.
Regardless of whether Lawrence and Garner were having sex, officers arrested the men on the premise that they had violated the state’s law that considered sexual acts between people of the same sex to be “deviate sexual intercourse.”
On the night of the arrest—and in the years following—Lawrence was indignant that police had entered his private residence and arrested him and his friend. Both felt a deep sense of injustice at their arrests, and the discriminatory law’s continued existence.
“For an outdated law like that to make it all right for the police or government to walk into your house … you know, uninvited. I think that was a wrong thing on the police part,” Garner told Carpenter in a 2005 interview. “I felt like I had been taken advantage of.”
Lawrence and Garner were released from jail the day after the arrests.
When Lewis was faxed the police report from the arrest, he was stunned because for so long the gay rights movement had been waiting for a case like this one to appear. Activists wanted to challenge sodomy laws, like the one in Texas, on constitutional grounds. Lewis immediately called Lawrence, who was then a stranger to him.
“I said, ‘John, I think we have a Supreme Court case here,’” Lewis recalls telling Lawrence shortly after his arrest.
The case was considered a good one to challenge the constitutionality of criminalizing homosexuality because there was only one charge—based on Section 21.06 of the Texas penal code, the ban on same-sex intercourse—filed against Lawrence and Garner.
Lewis turned to a Houston attorney widely known in the LGBTQ+ community for his work with people with HIV and AIDS facing discrimination, Mitchell Katine, who enlisted the help of constitutional lawyers from Lambda Legal, a group focused on LGBTQ+ rights, who would argue the case in front of the Supreme Court.
After winding through the Texas courts and eventually rising to the attention of the nation’s highest court, on June 26, 2003, the Supreme Court handed down a decisive 6-3 victory for LGBTQ+ activists and sent a clear message about the unconstitutionality of sodomy bans.
“The petitioners are entitled to respect for their private lives. The State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion.
By establishing the precedent that all of the constitutional rights that were available to other people are now available for gay people—rights previously denied under the Bowers v. Hardwick decision that enabled states to maintain sodomy bans—Lawrence v. Texas laid the groundwork for all of the benefits and protections of the Constitution to be equally applied to everybody.
“Because they were brave enough to let us do this, the whole country, and to some extent the world, changed as a result of their bravery,” Katine said of Lawrence and Garner’s participation.
Although Lawrence and Garner were both plaintiffs in the case, they lived in different worlds, Lewis said. Lawrence had stable employment as a medical technician at the time of this arrest. Garner wasn’t employed and didn’t have access to stable housing. Lewis recalls having difficulty reaching Garner after the arrest because the phone number listed on the police report was disconnected.
“He was a Black, feminine, gay male,” Lewis said. “There weren’t any safe spaces for Tyron.”
Three years after the decision, Garner died from complications of meningitis at age 39. Lawrence lived five years longer, until he was 68. He died from complications of a heart ailment.
The Lawrence decision kicked off decades of advances in civil rights for gay, lesbian and bisexual people. Yet the catalyst for the gay rights movement, the 1969 Stonewall riots, were largely led by transgender people of color, a part of the LGBTQ+ community that is still fighting for equal treatment.
Segovia of TENT said Lawrence set a precedent for the right to privacy for lesbian, gay and bisexual people, but the transgender community has not secured the same freedoms and protections to privately make health care decisions.
“What has been the growth for lesbian, gay, bi people versus trans people?” Segovia asked, pointing to the heightened level of discrimination and violence directed at trans people.
Trans people are four times more likely to be victims of violent crimes than their cisgender peers, according to a 2021 study from the University of California, Los Angeles’ Williams Institute. This violence poses a particular threat to trans women of color. The National Center for Transgender Equality reported 70% of the trans women killed in 2022 were Black.
“It’s a lot easier as a white, gay male to walk through Montrose now than it was in the early ’90s. Simultaneously, it’s just as unsafe for a trans or cross-dressing person to walk down the street today as it was in the early ’90s,” Lewis said.
Despite the persistent threats to the safety of transgender people, the state Legislature has made several attempts to regulate the lives of trans Texans. This year, lawmakers restricted the rights of transgender youth to access gender-affirming care and of transgender college athletes to participate on sports teams that align with their gender identity.
“We saw over 140 bills, anti-LGBTQ+ bills, with the majority of those … focused on the trans community,” said state Rep. Venton Jones, D-Dallas.
Jones said he and his Democratic colleagues spent a significant amount of time during the legislative session trying to educate the public about issues like gender-affirming care and dispelling myths that drag queens were sexualizing and grooming children. He characterized the Republican-led efforts as perpetuating misinformation and hate.
Issues relating to transgender people have grown more prominent over the last decade as Republicans have realized the political benefits of pushing issues that more closely regulate the lives of trans people.
Recent polling from the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin found that almost 80% of Republicans surveyed thought athletic participation should be based on sex assigned at birth in both K-12 and university sports. Researchers also found issues related to transgender Texans are relatively unknown to voters; nearly 60% of Texans don’t personally know a transgender person.
While three prominent bills impacting the LGBTQ+ community passed this session—including one that supporters say will restrict children from seeing drag shows—a proposal to remove Texas’ unconstitutional sodomy ban didn’t make it out of the House. Jones’ bill would have removed Section 21.06 from the Texas Penal Code, which was used to arrest Lawrence and Garner almost 25 years ago.
While unenforceable, these laws are at least a harsh reminder of the state’s oppression of LGBTQ+ people.
“At a minimum, these laws are hanging on the wall like an unused whip,” Carpenter said.
In the worst-case scenario, if the Supreme Court overturned Lawrence, consensual gay sex could again be illegal in Texas. That future seems less far-fetched in the wake of last year’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision, which revoked the constitutional protection for abortion and allowed Texas’ near-total ban on the procedure to go into effect.
In Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion of the Dobbs decision, he wrote that previous cases involving the 14th Amendment’s due-process clause should also be reconsidered and overruled. Those included Obergefell v. Hodges, which made same-sex marriages legal across the country, and Lawrence v. Texas.
Some people, like Carpenter, don’t believe Lawrence or Obergefell are at risk of being overturned given how same-sex couples have come to rely on these relationships for financial stability. But others, like Phelps, point to the conservative composition of today’s Supreme Court—which tilted further to the right after former President Donald Trump appointed three justices in his four years in office—as evidence that marriage equality is not a settled issue.
April polling from the Texas Political Project found that 62% of Republicans surveyed did not think same-sex marriage should be legal in Texas – evidence that continued advocacy to protect all LGBTQ+ people is an ongoing battle in Texas, even decades after major victories like Lawrence.
“The work is not done,” Segovia said.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/06/26/lawrence-v-texas-lgbtq-rights/.