WAMU 88.5 : The Diane Rehm Show

Dale Carpenter: "Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas"

Until 2003 it was illegal to have intimate relations with someone of the same sex throughout much of the U.S. It was in that year the Supreme Court case ruled in Lawrence-v-Texas. John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Garner were not ideal plaintiffs. Their story began in 1998 when one man, jealous that his male partner was friendly with another, called the police outside Houston, Texas. The officers who arrived at Lawrence’s home that night claimed they saw him and Garner having sex. The case could have been settled, but gay activists sensed victory. Diane and her guest discuss how a bedroom arrest became a landmark case for gay rights in America.

Program Highlights

Lawrence v. Texas has been called the most important Supreme Court decision on individual rights in half a century. A civil rights attorney has written the story behind the landmark Supreme Court case. It deals with sexual privacy, personal dignity, intimate relationships and shifting notions of family and America.

Case Background

Until Lawrence V. Texas, the state had a "homosexual conduct" law that forbade certain types of sexual intimacy, Carpenter said - but only between persons of the same sex. Opposite-sex couples could legally engage in the same activities. The law was used in Texas and around the nation, along with similar laws, to discriminate against gay men and lesbians, Carpenter said.

The Origins Of The Case

Police received a call in 1998 about a disturbance involving a man with a gun in an apartment outside of Houston, Texas. Several responding officers said they saw some kind of sexual activity going on between two of the men in the apartment; others said there was no sexual activity going on; and the two men in question, John Lawrence and Tyrone Garner, denied that anything sexual had happened. Based on his interviews and research, Carpenter believes Lawrence and Garner.

How Did The Case Reach The Supreme Court?

"You're looking at this from the 3,000-foot view. I think it went up all the way to the Supreme Court because on the one hand, the prosecutors in Harris County had no interest in challenging the word of their own police officers, who I believe did not see any sex, but one of whom did report having seen sex. And because I believe gay rights attorneys saw a golden opportunity that comes along maybe once in every generation to take the police at their word, do not hold a trial, so do not challenge the factual basis for the arrest, but challenge the constitutionality of the law on the grounds that the state has no business in the bedrooms of consenting adults and that's exactly what they did," Carpenter said.

Changes On The Court Itself

Carpenter believes the Supreme Court ruled the way it did in the 2003 case because of both societal changes and changes on the court itself. For example, in the mid-1980s, it was possible for Justice Powell to say, "I never met a gay person," Carpenter argued. But in 2003 it was not possible for any justice to say the same. And there had also, by 2003, been huge changes in American society regarding attitudes toward homosexuals. "There was over time a much greater respect for the idea that people should not be judged on the basis of their sexual orientation. Their individual merit did not depend on whether they were gay or straight," Carpenter said.

You can read the full transcript here.

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