Behind Lawrence v. Texas: Racism, homophobia and ruling class miscalculation

Tyrone Garner and John Lawrence
Tyrone Garner and John Lawrence

“I want to tell other gay people, ‘Be who you are, and don’t be afraid.’”

–Tyrone Garner, plaintiff in Lawrence v. Texas

It was a hot rainy night, Sept. 17, 1998, just as tropical storm Frances was ending its fury in the greater Houston area, not unlike most other hot, steamy nights in this part of the country in September—hurricane season—as locals call it—when the air is always thick with moisture with little reprieve from its repressive weight.

Relieved that the storm had passed and after a day of moving new furniture into John’s apartment, Tyron Garner and John Lawrence returned to John’s apartment after dinner at a Mexican restaurant with another friend.

The suspicions about their relationship extended far beyond a sexual encounter—Tyrone was an African American gay man and John was white, living in the the heavy wake of not only a tropical storm, but the racism and homophobia left by the legacy of slavery in the last liberated territory of the U.S.

The “weapons disturbance” that was called into the Houston Police Department, in reality, was the crime to dare to love in such a hostile environment, especially relations between an African American and a white man. The state responded in full force, knocking down the apartment door and storming into the bedroom– capturing the interracial gay couple together. John was thrown onto a couch by the cops, unclothed and not allowed to get dressed while the two men were being arrested.

The racist, homophobic police thought for sure that they had won. All the police would have to do is charge the two men with sodomy and they would disappear, in shame, forever. The police, the enforcement wing of the ruling class, counted on the legacy of racism and its inherent homophobia to push them down to be abandoned by their communities and history.

But Tyrone and John stood up.

“They picked the wrong person to pull this on,” said John with the inflection common to those from his East, Tx., hometown of Beaumont. “I’m going to

2003 Supreme Court ruling overturns sodomy law

Sodomy laws were the civil rights struggle of the era. The ruling class thought that two gay men were in no position to be asking for “rights” a little more than a decade after the onset of the AIDS crisis and in the hysteria that followed September 11, 2001.

At the time it was commonplace—especially in the South for the cops to record license plates of patrons of gay establishments. Workers could be openly fired if any knowledge of their same sex relationships were to become known. People—even many in the LGBTQ community–thought that Tyrone and John would lose.

But their challenge against the state and its need to use racism and homophobia to divide and rule over the people had a much looser grip than people had realized. As the pressure built, the Supreme Court had to rule 6-3 against the state of Texas, crumbling sodomy laws in 13 other states, expanding the legal protections at the time to all same sex couples and paving the way for the same sex marriage movement.

With this ruling, the Supreme Court reversed its own decision from 17 years earlier in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986). Wherein the Bowers ruling was a major setback that legitimized a myriad of types of attacks on and bigotry against the LGBTQ community, Lawrence was a huge advance that reached far beyond the issue of sodomy. The 2004 Massachusetts ruling for same sex marriage cited the Lawrence case. Twelve years later to the same day—June 26—same sex marriage would become the law of the land.

“This lady walked up to me and said, ‘thank you, thank you,’” said John Lawrence at the time of the decision. Tyrone and John would just laugh when compared to other civil rights pioneers.

Long live the courage of Tyrone Garner and John Lawrence

Tyrone Garner died three years later in 2006 from complications related to meningitis. Apart from being a hero in this landmark ruling, Tyrone had a difficult life, seldom having regular employment, other than having a popular barbecue street stand. He had personal struggles with substance abuse. His parents, who he cared for, did not have the money to have a funeral for him. His ashes were buried in a plastic bag. Tyrone was 39 years old.

John Lawrence died in his home in Houston on Nov. 20, 2011 due to complication from a heart ailment. John was considered by many as “not the typical test-case plaintiff.” He worked as a medical technician until his retirement and served in the Navy for four years. At the time of his death he was partnered with Jose Garcia. He was 68.

Neither John nor Tyrone was active in the LGBTQ movement, but their actions put into motion events and decisions that changed civil rights history by confronting racism and homophobia in the most courageous way.

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