Freedom rings at close of gay pride month


Last week, in the hallowed halls of the United States Supreme Court in Washington, the gay and lesbian rights movement won the single most important victory that we ever had to win.

In a sweeping repudiation of Bowers v. Hardwick, the infamous 1986 ruling that upheld Georgia’s sodomy law, the court found that penalties for private, consensual, adult sexual behavior was incompatible with the provision for “liberty” made in the Constitution’s 14th Amendment. The ruling invalidated not only the noxious gay-only sodomy law of Texas, but all such remaining laws nationwide, whether they targeted gays or the population generally.

To be sure, sodomy laws have been in steady retreat in the 17 years since Bowers. Only about a quarter of the states in the union still had them at the time the court issued its Lawrence v. Texas ruling. And in those states, of course, the laws were rarely enforced.

But that’s really not the important issue here. First, the risk that they could be enforced was a heinous invasion of the rights and privacy of anyone who fell under their sway.

Second, sodomy laws on the books have been used to disqualify gay men and lesbians from basic rights unrelated to their sexual behavior. Mothers have lost custody of their children. Lawyers have lost their jobs in public service. In a state with a sodomy law, admitting to be gay or lesbian was a de facto confession that one was a lawbreaker, and that status could be used to evaluate one’s fitness for some government-controlled position, right, or benefit.

Finally, and perhaps most insidiously, sodomy laws have served to underscore, in a way more profoundly than any other restriction we face, the second class citizenship of gay men and lesbians in our society. True, even after the Lawrence ruling, we still don’t have marriage, we still can’t serve openly in the military, in many places we can still be fired for being gay or lose our children for that reason, But as long as sodomy laws persisted, we could not even claim ownership of some of the most profoundly intimate and private moments of our life––our sexuality.

That changed decisively on June 26, 2003. For that, we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Lambda Legal Defense, its outgoing legal director, Ruth Harlow, who oversaw the Lawrence strategy, and Paul Smith, the Jennet & Block attorney who presented the oral arguments before the court in March.

There is still much to do in our movement and in our community. First, we have to guard against the right wing backlash which Justice Antonin Scalia seemed determine to call for in his churlish dissent. Then, we must use the best minds of our community to strategize how to take this marvelous victory and build on it to achieve the agenda that all of us require to make our lives as full and rich as possible.

But this weekend was a time to take a break and simply celebrate.

Gay and lesbian pride, indeed. Let freedom ring.

Paul Schindler is the editor in-chief of Gay City News, a sister publication of Downtown Express.


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