John G. Lawrence never sought the limelight. But after Harris County Sheriff's deputies arrested him and another man for engaging in a sex act in the privacy of his home, Lawrence became a public figure in one of the most significant cases in gay rights history. He fought the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won a stunning victory in 2003 when in a 6-3 decision, the nation's highest court struck down the Texas law that made gay sex a crime and voided similar laws in 12 other states.
Lawrence, a retired medical techonologist, died on Nov. 20 at his Houston home of complications of a heart ailment. Services were held Nov. 23 in Silsbee, but his death only attracted national attention after The New York Times ran an obituary in Saturday's paper. The newspaper reported that Houston attorney Mitchell Katine, who represented Lawrence in the landmark case, found out about Lawrence's death when he called his home to invite him to an event commemorating the ruling and found out he had died several weeks earlier.
Lawrence, a closeted gay man at the time and quiet by nature, was furious about how he was treated — physically and personally — that night, and vowed to fight back. "The fire stayed in him," Katine said. "When he was vindicated in the Supreme Court, he felt he got justice."
On Sept. 17, 1998, deputies were called to Lawrence's apartment after a neighbor had observed him returning home with Tyron Garner and reported a "weapons disturbance." The neighbor was later convicted of filing a false police report. Police burst into the home and said they observed the two men having sex. Lawrence and Garner were arrested for violating a Texas law prohibiting “deviate sexual intercourse with another individual of the same sex.” They were held overnight and each fined $200.
The case could have ended there, but Lawrence, a closeted gay man at the time and quiet by nature, was furious about how he was treated — physically and personally — and vowed to fight back. "The fire stayed in him," Katine told the Times. "When he was vindicated in the Supreme Court, he felt he got justice."
In a 2004 interview with the Houston Chronicle, Lawrence recounted how officers shoved him to the couch, shattering the porcelain birds that were a gift from his mother and took him to jail, wearing only handcuffs and underwear. Later, after he was released, he worried how his elderly father would react. "So I called my dad, and my dad said, `You will find a good lawyer,' " Lawrence recalled.
The decision overturned a 1986 Supreme Court decision that allowed states to criminalize gay sexual activity, and established, for the first time, that lesbians and gay men are entitled to fundamental liberty and privacy rights under the United States Constitution.
After the Supreme Court decision was announced, gay men and lesbians poured into the streets in major cities across the country to celebrate. Lawrence and Garner celebrated with well-wishers at a rally at Houston City Hall.
"We never chose to be public figures or to take on the spotlight," Lawrence said. "We also never thought we could be arrested this way. We are glad this ruling not only lets us get on with our lives but opens the door for all gay people to be treated equally."
Upon the reported news of his death, tributes began pouring in from gay rights advocates. In a statement, Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal, which took on Lawrence's case, said:
John Lawrence was a quiet, unassuming and heroic man, whose courage shaped the LGBT rights movement, and we look back on his accomplishment with profound respect and pride. The impact of Lawrence v. Texas is felt every time a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender person steps into a courtroom. We honor John for his courage and willingness to represent the community in a watershed moment that has forever changed our march to equality."
Garner died in 2006 of complications from meningitis.
Lawrence was survived by his partner, Jose Garcia, and a brother and sister.