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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 30, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 52
Lawrence v. Texas plaintiff dies
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Lawrence v. Texas plaintiff dies

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

John Geddes Lawrence, Jr., the lead plaintiff in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas, died November 20, according to an obituary posted online by a funeral home in Texas. He was 68 years old.

Why the death was announced more than a month after the fact was not explained, but it was, perhaps, typical for Lawrence. People who knew him remembered him as a quiet, retiring person - an unlikely activist.

'He really was the most unassuming person that I could imagine, and yet, he was a hero,' Lambda Legal executive director Kevin Cathcart told Metro Weekly when Lawrence's death was announced.

'Most people try to plead out and avoid publicity [with sodomy charges]. It's tough to find people who want to attach their names to sodomy challenges. ... And yet, they did this amazing thing. And we all are the better for it.'

According to his online obituary, Lawrence was born in Beaumont, Texas, on August 2, 1943, served in the U.S. Navy for four years, and worked as a medical technologist in Texas hospitals until his retirement in 2009.

Lawrence and his then-partner, Tyron Garner, were arrested in 1998 under Texas' 'Homosexual Conduct Law' after police went to their home in response to a weapons disturbance call.

Houston police entered the apartment and saw the couple engaged in a private, consensual sex act. The two were arrested and convicted of deviant sexual intercourse, in violation of the Texas law.

In a 2004 interview with The Houston Chronicle, Lawrence recalled police shoving him down on the sofa, in the process shattering a set of porcelain birds that his mother had given him.

He was humiliated, he said, and was driven to the police station wearing only handcuffs and his underwear.

Lawrence, who was not out of the closet to all of his family and co-workers, also remembered the difficult call to his elderly father to explain what happened.

'I was a little worried,' Lawrence told the Chronicle. 'I didn't know how I was going to handle this. So I called my dad, and my dad said, 'You will find a good lawyer.'

Lambda Legal took an interest in the case, and helped Lawrence challenge the constitutionality of the Texas law.

On March 26, 2003, the case was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, and the court announced its ruling on June 26 of that year.

By a six-to-three majority, the court struck down the Texas law and reversed its own previous decision in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), in which it had upheld a Georgia sodomy law.

'At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,' Justice Kennedy wrote for the court majority.

'Persons in a homosexual relationship may seek autonomy for these purposes, just as heterosexual persons do.'

'Had those who drew and ratified the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth Amendment or the Fourteenth Amendment known the components of liberty in its manifold possibilities, they might have been more specific. They did not presume to have this insight,' Kennedy held.

'They knew times can blind us to certain truths and later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress. As the Constitution endures, persons in every generation can invoke its principles in their own search for greater freedom.'

The Lawrence decision struck down anti-Gay laws in 14 states, and established the principle that the consensual sexual conduct of adults is protected by the substantive due process guarantees of the constitution.

It was a stunning victory.

'The impact of Lawrence v. Texas is felt every time a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender person steps into a courtroom,' Lambda Legal's Cathcart said.

'We honor John for his courage and willingness to represent the community in a watershed moment that has forever changed our march to equality.'

'It's hard to believe that less than 10 years ago, Gay and Lesbian people could be marked as criminals just for being themselves, but because of people like John Lawrence, those days are no more in this country,' HRC spokesman Michael Cole-Schwartz told Metro Weekly.

'To be the namesake of a legal case that continues to underpin advances for LGBT equality is a fitting tribute to John Lawrence, whose courage to stand up improved the lives of millions.'

Garner died in 2006. At the time of his death, Lawrence was being cared for by his current partner, Jose Garcia.

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