Saturday, December 24, 2011

John Lawrence of Lawrence v. Texas Has Passed Away

This post originally appeared on Houstini.com on December 23, 2011

John Lawrence, left, and Tyrone Gardner
Metro Weekly reports that one-time Houstonian John Geddes Lawrence, the "Lawrence" in Lawrence v. Texas, passed away last month at the age of 68:
"In the facts underlying the Supreme Court case, Lawrence v. Texas, Lawrence and Tyron Garner were arrested under Texas's Homosexual Conduct Law after police entered Lawrence's home on Sept. 17, 1998, and saw them "engaging in a sexual act." The couple challenged the law as unconstitutional."
I was 22 and living in Dallas in 2003 when the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Lawrence declaring Texas' law against "homosexual conduct" unconstitutional. A group of more than 100 people gathered in the parking lot of Resource Center Dallas as Dennis Coleman, then with Lambda Legal and now executive director of Equality Texas, read excerpts of the decision. I remember the exuberant electricity in the air, the crowd bubbling with joy and the relief of centuries of official oppression finally coming to an end. Similar get-togethers took place across the state and nation, as an entire community breathed a collective sigh of relief.

That relief has turn to frustration over the years. Although the Supreme Court decision rendered Penal Code Section 21.06 unconstitutional, the law remains on the books, and efforts to remove it have met with significant resistance. During a hearing this spring on finally removing the unconstitutional law, Rep. Jose Aliseda, R-Pleasanton, lamented that repealing 21.06 would also entail removing portions of the Health Code requiring that HIV education efforts include information that "homosexual conduct is not an acceptable lifestyle and is a criminal offense under Section 21.06, Penal Code."

Before Lawrence several attempts were made to remove the law against "homosexual conduct." The Texas Legislature voted to remove it from the penal code as part of a complete rewrite of in 1971, but the measure was vetoed by Gov. Preston Smith. In 1973 the Legislature again undertook a rewrite of the code, keeping "homosexual conduct" a crime but making it a class-C misdemeanor. In 1981 a U.S. District Court ruled in Baker v. Wade that the law was unconstitutional, but as that case was winding its way through the appeals process, the Supreme Court ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick that a similar law in Georgia was constitutional, making the questions in Baker moot. Similarly, in the 90s there was hope that Texas v. Morales might finally prevail in defeating the "homosexual conduct" prohibition, but the Texas Supreme Court decided that since, in their opinion, the law was rarely enforced, there was no reason for them to rule in the matter.

John Lawrence's legacy lives on in a scholarship named after him and Garner that is administered by the Houston GLBT Community Center. The scholarship "recognizes outstanding leadership shown by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Texas high school seniors and college students by contributing to the cost of their continuing education. Selection is based upon character and need." Tim Brookover, president of the community center, expressed sorrow at Lawrence's passing.

"John was a hero. The community owes a great debt of gratitude to John and Tyrone for taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court," said Brookover. "They could have easily allowed it to slip away, but they decided to stay and fight and that makes them heroes and role models."

The application deadline for the John Lawrence/Tyrone Gardner Scholarship is March 2, 2012.

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