Monday, March 19, 2012

Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas

W.W. Norton and Company, 2012
345 pp
(hardcover ed.)

The New Yorker is one of my favorite magazines, and inside  the March 12th issue I came across a fantastic article by writer Dahlia Lithwick, a review of Flagrant Conduct, by Dale Carpenter.  By the time I'd finished it, I knew I had to get my hands on the book -- I have a more than keen interest in civil rights history and the growth of social and political power in the nation's gay community. The book examines a case that started with an arrest in Texas in 1998 that ultimately led to a groundbreaking, decisive civil-rights victory in 2003, when the US Supreme Court decided that laws criminalizing sexual behavior between members of the same sex were  unconstitutional. It was a red-letter day for members of the gay and lesbian community; the Lawrence v. Texas decision also overturned an earlier decision made in 1986 in Bowers v. Hardwick in which  the Supreme Court had ruled that the constitution afforded no right to privacy or protection for homosexual acts between consenting adults in the privacy of the bedroom. It also stated that state legislatures were able to enact laws based on "notions of morality," laws that reflected "majority sentiments." Flagrant Conduct  is a compelling story that gets the reader behind the scenes of this momentous change in civil rights history, but even more, it is a very human story, detailing the determination behind the drive for this change that got the case to the highest court in the land.

The book proceeds chronologically, beginning in 1998, with the arrest of two men for sodomy in Houston,Texas.  On a September night, in a Houston apartment complex known for wild parties and other "shenanigans," a man in Apartment 833 says he's going to go out and grab a soda. Instead he dials 911, reporting that inside the apartment there's a black man “going crazy with a gun.” His aim may have been to separate the other two men, John Lawrence and Tyron Garner (his current partner), because of jealousy.  Sheriff's officers arrived at the scene, made their way into the apartment, and ultimately arrested Lawrence and Garner for sodomy. According to the arresting deputy and an officer who corroborated the story as a witness, the two were actively having sex in the bedroom while he was standing there, and did not stop even when they realized he was in the room. The senior officer, Joseph Quinn, had discretion in what to do: he could give the two men a warning and let them off, he could write them a ticket, or he could charge them for sodomy. Quinn wasn't feeling particularly charitable, Lawrence was being belligerent, and  ultimately, citing Texas criminal code law 21.06 (the Texas Homosexual Conduct Law) the sheriffs arrested Lawrence and Garner and took them to jail. But all may not be as law enforcement claimed: first, the two men denied that they were having sex, and stated that they were both wearing clothes at the time the deputies arrived; second, the  officers' account of events that night varied, none of them agreeing with the others. The case was eventually picked up by gay-rights advocates Lambda Legal, representatives of whom met with Garner and Lawrence, explaining to them  the necessity of taking a no-contest plea for which they would have to pay a fine, regardless of what really might have happened in that Houston apartment that night.  The plea was the entry point for Lambda to try to challenge not just the Texas Homosexual Conduct Law, but all anti-sodomy laws that pointedly discriminated against gay people. Lambda and others realized that the Lawrence case had the potential to get to the US Supreme Court, and quite possibly undo the damage caused in 1986 with the decision made in Bowers v. Hardwick.

Flagrant Conduct examines not just the case itself, but also  the "peculiar corrupting quality of laws that target a class of persons for moral opprobrium," as well as cases based on these laws, the real influence of fundamentalist religions on politics in Texas,  the growing social and political power of the gay community in Houston (many of whom still remained in the closet due to workplace and other repercussions), and the stories of the individual people connected through this case, which ultimately would become a landmark moment in the history of US civil rights.  It also examines law enforcement and its attitudes toward homosexuals. There are also many memorable moments throughout the book, none the least of which are the arguments before the Supreme Court -- especially the differences between presentations by the unprepared, self-assured DA from Texas and the Lambda team, for whom the outcome of the case had a special, more personal meaning.  Also memorable is the day of the Court's decision, the protests by Christian groups including those led by Falwell, Robertson and the notorious Fred Phelps of Topeka Kansas whose slogan is "God hates fags."

Obviously there's much more to this book; I've just scratched the surface here.  Don't expect an Erik Larson kind of nonfiction read; it's just not that kind of book, but nor is it a boring historical treatise that will lull you to sleep or cause you to put the book down for long periods of time before returning. There are times at the beginning when Carpenter is analyzing his arguments where it necessarily gets a bit repetitious, for example, when debating what the arresting officer said what he saw versus the defendants relating their own account of events. It's a non-issue, really, because overall the book is well researched, well analyzed, flows well and is very well and fairly presented. There's no need to know anything about either case prior to starting this book; nor is there any need to be familiar with legal terminology: the author clearly and carefully spells everything out. His work is very approachable and reader friendly, easy to understand and quite frankly, a mesmerizing account of a life-changing event. Very highly recommended, especially for people who are interested in the history of civil rights in this country as well as the social and political history of the gay and lesbian movement and its opposition in the United States.

I am truly amazed at just how good this book is -- I couldn't put it down.