Magazine article The New Yorker

UNNATURAL LAW Series: 1/6

Magazine article The New Yorker

UNNATURAL LAW Series: 1/6

Article excerpt

Like whist, whilst, and self-abuse, the word sodomy has an old-fashioned ring to it. You don't even see it alluded to much anymore, except in punning tabloid headlines about the situation in Iraq. But it--or its kissin' cousin, the nearly as archaic-sounding "deviate sexual intercourse"--can be found in the criminal codes of thirteen states of the Union, where it is punishable by penalties ranging from a parking-ticket-size fine to (theoretically) ten years in prison. Even at this late date, many people are vague about just exactly what sodomy is. Montesquieu defined it as "the crime against nature," which is not especially helpful. Blackstone called it "the infamous crime against nature, committed either with man or beast," which gets us a little further, but not much. Back in the U.S.A., the statute books tend to be franker. Some states bring animals into the picture, some don't. The Texas Legislature's definition is nonzoological. According to Section 21.01 of the Texas Penal Code (readers of delicate sensibilities may at this point wish to skip down a few lines), " 'Deviate sexual intercourse' means: (A) any contact between any part of the genitals of one person and the mouth or anus of another person; or (B) the penetration of the genitals or the anus of another person with an object."

What the Lone Star State does and does not view as some kinda deviated preversion became of national interest last week, when the United States Supreme Court agreed to consider Lawrence v. Texas. The Lawrence of the case is John G. Lawrence, fifty-nine years old, of Houston, who, on the evening of September 17, 1998, was in his apartment with a guest, Tyron Garner, who is thirty-five. Texas got involved when police, having been tipped off by a neighbor that a "weapons disturbance" was in progress, busted down the door. (The tip was a deliberate lie on the part of the neighbor, who was later convicted of filing a false report.) What the officers found Lawrence and Garner doing is really none of our business, any more than it was any of Texas's; suffice it to say that it was consensual, nonviolent, and noise-free. The two men were arrested, jailed overnight, and eventually fined two hundred dollars each. They appealed, a three-judge panel of a district appeals court reversed their conviction, the full nine-judge appeals court reversed the reversal, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals declined to do any more reversing. And so to Washington.

The statute under which Lawrence and Garner were convicted, Section 21.06 of the Texas Penal Code, is officially known as the Homosexual Conduct Law. Ironically, this statute was a product of the progressive mood of the early nineteen-seventies. In most of the states that still criminalize sodomy, it doesn't matter, legally, whether a couple engaging in behavior (A), above, consists of two men, two women, or one of each. That's how it was in Texas, too, until 1974. In that bell-bottomed year, the Texas Legislature made heterosexual sodomy legal, but it couldn't quite bring itself to do the same for gays. The result is that Texas is now one of only four states (the others being Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma) where it is a crime for gays to please each other in ways that are perfectly legal for straights. …

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