In Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas: How a Bedroom Arrest Decriminalized Gay Americans (Norton) civil rights law professor Dale Carptenter examines the landmark 2002 case that led the Supreme Court to strike down Texas’s sodomy laws, resulting from the arrest of two gay men in their home by sheriff’s deputies who showed up looking for an armed criminal.
How did you get interested in the Lawrence v. Texas case?
First, it’s the most fundamental civil rights case of the last 40 or 50 years, so it starts out being a very important case. Second, when I started to write a law review eight years ago, we had very few facts about the case, about the men who were involved and how the case was crafted and brought to the Supreme Court. The more I got into it, the more interesting I thought it was.
How often did this kind of arrest happen, in Texas or elsewhere?
This was a once-in-a-generation event where all of the following factors came together: it was in private, it involved two consenting but not paying adults, it didn’t involve children or force. It was fully consensual, private, adult sexual intimacy—and that was the charge. Those cases have almost never come up because it is very rare for police to be present in those circumstances, and where they have been they have not pursued an arrest—or people who were arrested pled out without challenging their arrests. So these circumstances were almost unheard of.
What was the motivation of the arresting officers?
First, whether [the arrestees] were actually having sex is an open question—my guess is they probably weren’t. And it’s important to say that they [the police] were there for perfectly legitimate, legally appropriate reasons: they believed there was a serious crime in progress, they thought they were putting their lives on the line, so when they discovered there was no serious threat in the apartment they were rather frustrated and angry—they had been called to the apartment on a false pretext by the boyfriend of one of the two men. They took that out on [John] Lawrence and [Tyron] Garner, and once they realized these were two gay men, that was part of the motive—[the officers] had strong views about homosexuals and gay rights, which they made comments about while in the apartment. In addition to that, you can speculate about other things that were involved: that they were an interracial couple, they were in a working-class neighborhood, and they could be expected to kind of go away and not challenge the arrest. But the two biggest factors were frustration and homophobia.
How did the Supreme Court decision affect the rest of the country?
The effects [of anti-sodomy legislation] carry across the board, to lots of areas beyond just sexual regulation. The decision that was overruled in Lawrence v. Texas had been part of the foundation for much anti-gay policy around the country, whether it was restrictions on adoption by gay people or visitation with one’s own children, employment anti-discrimination laws, military service, and marriage. For example, the argument against hiring a gay police officer is that, presumably, that person is flouting the law and therefore should not be entrusted with enforcing it.
So its relevance today is that it undermines the basis for some of those restrictions on the freedom and equality of gays and lesbians. The significance of the Lawrence decision for the marriage issue, it doesn’t take us all the way to gay marriage but it removes a huge obstacle from that path. It would be very odd to say that you have the right to marry but you do not have the right to intimacy with the person you marry.
What do you hope people get out of this book in the run-up to the 2012 election?
Well I hope that the book helps make the point that for all Americans, whether gay or straight, the government has no business in our bedrooms telling us who we can love and share intimacy with as adults. Only in our very recent history did courts not recognize that. Prohibiting people from having their own private sexual intimacy is not just a prohibition of conduct, it is a way of saying to a group of people: You are a class of criminals and you are not welcome here. That is no longer the message of our law, and that is the ultimate triumph of Lawrence v. Texas.