| The Supreme
Note: a version of this
commentary appeared on the editorial page of the Los Angeles
Times on June 29, 2003.
words, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy on Thursday, June 25,
2003, struck down a Texas law that made consensual sex
in private between members of the same sex a criminal
act. The decision reversed a 1986 ruling upholding Georgia's
anti-sodomy laws, and, by extension, similar laws that
at the time existed in 24 other states. In the present
instance, Justice Kennedy wrote: The Texas law "demeans
the lives of homosexual persons ... entitled to respect
for their private lives...." Justices John Paul Stevens,
David Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg concurred; Sandra
Day O'Connor agreed, with qualification. By emphasizing
the word "respect," Justice Kennedy was not
only upholding the right of privacy; he was asserting
concurring justices, the defendants involved, the Lambda
Legal Defense and Education Fund that handled the appeal,
and Paul Smith, who argued the case (and who, in perfect
irony, was the law clerk of past-Justice Lewis Powell
when Powell along with O'Connor and Rehnquist, on the
bench at the time, ruled to uphold the Georgia law against
"deviant sex")--all deserve the celebratory
rallies being held throughout the country in their honor.
some, it will be difficult to feel grateful. That the
matter came up is disgraceful to all concepts of decency.
For gay veterans of not-too-distant wars for equal rights,
the grand decision will stir memories of outrages survived.
too many years ago--the fifties, the sixties, the seventies,
and into the eighties--incidents of violence against gay
men and women were common, most often not even investigated,
or reported, because it was almost always the gay man
who was deemed guilty. Into the 70's people risked arrest
by being in a gay bar. A scurrilous Hollywood newspaper
of the time frequently ran stories headlining the number
of "queers" arrested in a bar. At any moment
a bar would be flooded with light from a squad car. A
bullhorn ordered all "queers" to march out in
a single line, ostensibly to be checked for I.D. The men
would be insulted, mauled, in some instances beaten. Chosen
arbitrarily, as many men as fitted into a squad car or
wagon were taken to "headquarters for questioning."
Protest would elicit a powerful threat: Anyone suspected
of whatever the police claimed--including loitering--might
be held, without charges, for 48 hours, released, and
then held again for as long.
was rampant; a vice cop might court or accept an invitation
for sex at someone's home, and then arrest. Plain clothes
cops sat in cars outside gay gathering places in order
to trail men leaving together. They waited, then pushed
their way into a private home, just as--significantly--
years later, the defendants in the Texas case would be
arrested in their home. Some men went to prison; a sentence
of up to 5 years was possible.
was illegal for members of the same sex to dance together
(heterosexual women exempted). A "private" club
in Topanga Canyon adopted a system of lights to signal
a hostile presence. Lights would blink, and gay men would
shift partners, dancing with Lesbians.
political groups, like the Mattachine Society, met in
secret, blinds drawn; their newsletters were confiscated
by the postoffice, although they had no erotic content.
lives were destroyed by such arrests, men lost their jobs,
were ostracized, forced to register for life as "sex
offenders," threatened with electric shock treatment,
mandated to stay away from any place catering to "perverts"--in
effect being sentenced to a life of loneliness, away from
the possibility of finding someone. A man arrested in
29 Palms after a plainclothes cop struck up a conversation
that led to a mutual agreement to go to a motel was sentenced
to six months in jail, where he remained incommunicado.
After he managed to get out--the judge claiming he was
"insane" and needed to be scrutinized--he became
a recluse, petrified for life by the incident.
1977--four years after the repeal in California of anti-sodomy
laws--in the early evening, driving home from UCLA, I
saw muggers fleeing from the man they had assaulted on
the street. I drove the bleeding man to the police station
so that a squad car would be sent to the area. The bruised
man--clearly gay--was returning home with groceries when
attacked. At the station, the sergeant studied him after
I had recounted what I had seen, and he asked him, "What
did you try to do with those guys?"
on the memorable day of June 25, 2003, in decent, moving
words, Justice Kennedy, and those who joined him, in effect
denounced those past horrors as inconsistent with the
respect and dignity asserted. Many will rightly celebrate
the decision as a grand, unqualified victory--and those
who brought it about are heroic. Without in any way belittling
the decency of the justices in their brave opinion, some
might view the decision as a vastly imperfect apology
for the many lives mangled by cruel laws that made possible
the myriad humiliations of gay people, the verbal assaults
and screams of "Faggot!"--the muggings, the
suicides, the murders--all occurring even during this
time of victory.
members of the court to which Americans have long looked
for unbiased justice supported the Texas outrage. That
flagrant dissent will help to keep fertile the atmosphere
of hatred that allowed three men to mangle Trevor Broudy
in West Hollywood and allowed Matthew Shepherd to be butchered
so the battles continue.
Los Angeles, California
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Original material by John Rechy appears
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