This is the first in an occasional series where I examine what happened to key figures in society related to homosexuality. In this post, we look at the people behind Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 United States Supreme Court decision ruling that regulation of sexual behavior was unconsitutional.
There is a new book out by Dale Carpenter called Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas. It has been a common practice for a long time, when trying to get favorable Supreme Court rulings, to recruit the most sympathetic plaintiff possible. Judges are people, after all, and they have been shown to be swayed by emotion.
In the case of Lawrence v. Texas, this strategy worked suprisingly well. As Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion, “When sexuality finds overt expression in intimate conduct with another person, the conduct can be but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring.” And, as Dahlia Lithwick writes in her review of Carpenter’s book in the New Yorker, the word ‘relationship’ appeared eleven times in the majority opinion.
Most court-watchers were aware that John Geddes Lawrence and Tyrone Garner were arrested for having sex, “caught in the act,” so to speak when police arrived to investiage complaints from a neighbor that “some black man is going crazy with a gun.”
What I do not think has been told until Carpenter’s book is that Lawrence and Garner were not gay lovers, were not having sex when the police arrived, and in fact barely knew each other. The “neighbor” who called police was actually Robert Eubanks, an alcoholic and frequently homeless man who was in an on-and-off again stormy and violent relationship with Tyron Garner.
Eubanks had called police because he was angry and jealous, believing that Garner was flirting with Lawrence. Four police arrived and entered the apartment and found a very drunk and angry Lawrence shouting obscenities and demanding to see a warrant. The police found sexually explicit gay art on the walls but actually only two of the four policemen claim to have seen any sexual activity at all, and their accounts differed matierally.
There was little doubt that Lawrence was arrested for his belligerence rather than the gay sex, but police are often eager (and often wrongly so) to establish their authority and so they hauled him down to the station anyway. However, the rest of the case rested on maintaining the fiction that Lawrence and Garner were lovers, so gay rights activist persuaded Lawrence to not contest the facts of the case. As Lithwick puts it,
Does it matter that, in Justice Kennedy’s stirring meditation on privacy and dignity and the “manifold possibilities” of liberty, the truth of the non-relationship between the non-lovers John Lawrence and Tyron Garner was lost? Does it matter that our collective memory locks the two men together in a mythic embrace? The plaintiffs who seek redress at the Supreme Court are rarely as polished as the movie versions that the Court can bring itself to love. But it’s rare that they disappear altogether, the way Lawrence and Garner did.
You can read the rest of the fascinating details of this case in Carpenter’s book, but for my purposes, where are these men now? Lithwick tells us.
At a press conference after the decision was announced, Lawrence read a brief prepared statement and Garner said nothing. Some advocates hoped that Garner might have a career as a gay-rights spokesman. After he gave a drunken speech at a black-tie dinner in the plaintiffs’ honor, that idea was scratched. The case is called Lawrence v. Texas. John Lawrence died last November. Almost no one took note. Garner died five years earlier, at the age of thirty-nine. When Lambda Legal proved unable to raise funds for a proper memorial or burial, Harris County cremated him and sent his ashes home to his family in a plastic bag. There was no funeral.
Robert Eubanks was murdered before the case went to trial, and it remains unsolved. You can read John Geddes Lawrence’s obituary in the New York Times here, and Tyron Garner’s here. The story is sobering enough, but I thought about a passage cited in Justice Scalia’s dissent from an earlier case (Planned Parenthood v. Casey), which Scalia derides but attributes to the thinking behind this case as well, probably because its majority opinion was written by Justice Kennedy as well. In that opinion, Kennedy wrote:
Our law affords constitutional protection to personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education. Our cases recognize ‘the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted intrusion… These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.
That is a stirring sentiment, and, quite commendable. Yet these soaring words, when placed against the lives of these three men, also show what the law cannot bestow, even at its most generous, as in this court case. Despite their resounding victory, the Supreme Court could not grant Lawrence or Garner, and still less Eubanks, life, or even liberty from addictions like substance abuse. What bonds of affection Garner experienced in his life were not sufficiently enduring to even provide him a funeral, even when they were fully legalized.
And the ultimate judgment for these men, as it does the rest of us, rests in the future at a far different judgment bar, with a far different Judge.