The Big Question
Does the government have the authority to ban private, consensual, and victimless sexual acts between adults?
- See also: Sex and Civil Liberties
A Brief History of American Sodomy Laws
The first gay man executed for sodomy in the United States was Guillermo, a French translator who worked for the staunchly (and rather fanatically) religious Spanish conquistadors. It is not known what happened to his paramour, an American Indian man whom history does not name, but Guillermo would not be the first victim of colonial sodomy laws.
By the time of the American Revolution, executions for same-sex intercourse were relatively uncommon but the laws enforcing same were certainly on the books--enough so that Jefferson helpfully offered castration as a more humane penalty in one 1776 letter. Over time, the penalties for sodomy became less severe, the laws bringing those penalties into effect even less frequently enforced (if not repealed altogether), but many state laws still mandated that private decisions regarding use of appendages and orifices ought to be strictly regulated by law. During the 1990s, Governor George W. Bush (R-TX) vowed to veto any attempt to overturn his state's sodomy law, declaring it "a symbolic affirmation of traditional values." (The law essentially banned all gay sex, but did not apply to heterosexual couples.) Some residents might have been a bit surprised to hear that their traditional values were all that explicit, but the law was, if not wholly symbolic, at least unenforced.
Until it wasn't.
Lawrence v. Texas (2003)
On September 17th, 1998, Texas law enforcement officials stormed the apartment (and, more to the point, bedroom) of a gay couple at a most inopportune time. A homophobic neighbor had reported, presumably with his ear to the wall, that there was a man "going crazy with a gun" inside. (The neighbor later admitted that he had made the story up, and spent 15 days in jail for filing a false police report.) The law enforcement officials saw more than they really wanted to see, and arrested the couple on sodomy charges. The case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.
In Lawrence v. Texas (2003), a 6-3 majority led by Justice Anthony Kennedy overturned the conviction, and Texas' sodomy law, on the grounds that "[t]he petitioners are entitled to respect for their private lives," and that "[t]he State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime."