Joanna Schroeder wonders how the real story of the men behind Lawrence v Texas impacts the LGBT-rights movement.
When we think of gay rights advocates, we get a very clear picture of the kind of men and women who step up to the plate. We often think of Harvey Milk, the first elected LGBT official in California, celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres, or even fictional characters like Modern Family‘s Mitchell and Cameron. Charismatic, white, middle-class and generally quite wholesome.
But one of the most famous cases in Gay Rights history has recently been “outed” as predicated upon political spin. The case of Lawrence v Texas in 2003 (yes, that recent!) finally made sodomy (and sex between two same-sex partners) legal in the last thirteen states still hanging on to these laws.
But The New Yorker’s latest edition tells the fascinating story of how the gay men at the center of the case (Tyron Garner and John Lawrence) who were supposedly a loving couple were, according to all accounts, not only not a couple, but not even having sex with one another. The only thing that seems true about the picture that was painted of them was that they were, in fact, gay.
This article weaves a fascinating story of how two seemingly low-life criminals (multiple assault, drunk driving, even vehicular homicide charges between them) who barely knew each other, would become two of the most important gay rights figures of the last twenty-five years for being charged with acts of sodomy they didn’t even engage in that night.
…That’s the punch line: the case that affirmed the right of gay couples to have consensual sex in private spaces seems to have involved two men who were neither a couple nor having sex. In order to appeal to the conservative Justices on the high court, the story of a booze-soaked quarrel was repackaged as a love story. Nobody had to know that the gay-rights case of the century was actually about three or four men getting drunk in front of a television in a Harris County apartment decorated with bad James Dean erotica.
This story raises the question of whether these two men, who don’t seem to be our traditional vision of “good men”, can be considered “good” simply because of all the good that was done in their names.
By the time the tale poured from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s pen, in his decisive majority opinion, it was even about the physical dimension of love: “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.
Does it matter to the gay rights community that these two were not the loving, domesticated partners they were portrayed as by advocates and by the media? Does this deception, and the reality of who these men were, damage the more wholesome image of gay men that activists have been trying to further?
And with the good that has come of the case of Lawrence v Texas, and the lovely and idealistic ruling of Justice Kennedy, should the backstory even matter?
Read more of Dahlia Lithwick’s Extreme Makeover at: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2012/03/12/120312crbo_books_lithwick#ixzz1obS0SxcH
Photo: AP/David J Phillip