Activists back challenge to Texas anti-gay laws

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TWO MEN are due to be arraigned for sodomy in Houston, Texas on Friday, in a case that has provoked outrage among gay groups across the country. The fact that homosexual acts between consenting adults in private are still outlawed in Texas is one cause of the furore. But what has triggered it at this particular time are the circumstances of the arrest.

On 17 September - in an incident that has only just come to wider notice - Houston police burst into a suburban private apartment. They expected to find an intruder "going crazy" with a gun, as the neighbour who called them out had described. Instead, they found two men allegedly having sex in their own bedroom.

The informant, who appeared to have a grudge against gays, was charged with filing a false report and sentenced to 15 days in jail. But John Geddes Lawrence, 55, and Tyrone Garner, 31, were arrested too, under Texas's 119-year-old sodomy law, and held in custody for several hours before being released on bail.

Gay groups across the country are rallying around the two accused. "It is just unbelievable that in 1998 this sort of arrest could happen," said a lawyer for the two men, Mitchell Katine. "It is a terrible experience for any of us to be arrested for what we do in the privacy of our own home with a consenting adult."

Even by the standards of Texas, one of 22 US states with anti-sodomy laws on its statute books and one of only six with legislation specifically directed against homosexuals, this has been an unusual case. There have been only a handful of prosecutions in the past 30 years.

But popular and political support for the anti-sodomy laws in such a conservative southern state remain strong. The state legislature agreed five years ago that Texas's anti-sodomy laws violated privacy norms, but scrapped them only for heterosexual couples.

When they appear before the Justice of the Peace, Mr Lawrence and Mr Garner will have the option to pay a $500 (pounds 310) fine and close the case. But several advocacy groups, as well as the local prosecutor's office, hope they will contest the charges so that their case can be used to throw the statute off the books.

"The case may well be a landmark test of the right to privacy in American law," the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission said. Gay groups are calling for financial support, should the case turn into a protracted battle.

Several previous attempts to challenge the Texas anti-sodomy law have failed for lack of a criminal case to take to the superior courts. Mica England, a lesbian who was turned down for a job with the Dallas police department on the ground that a woman committing crimes in her private life could not enforce the law in public, won a discrimination lawsuit in 1994 but failed to persuade the state Supreme Court that the anti-gay law was unconstitutional.

"I've always said the best way to get rid of a bad law is to enforce it," District Attorney John Holmes said, explaining why he was going ahead with the case against Mr Lawrence and Mr Garner. He wants to give the case the chance to climb far enough through the system for the law to be challenged.

In 1986, the US Supreme Court upheld Georgia's sodomy laws, arguing that the right to privacy did not extend to homosexual acts. But the nine-member court was split 5-4 and one of the justices who voted in favour of the anti-sodomy laws, the late Lewis Powell, later said he had been wrong.

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